Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘In The Heart of the Sea’ & ‘Abram’s Eyes’
Unsurprisingly given my location, I spent early summer reading a fair amount of books by Nathaniel Philbrick, Nantucket’s favorite native historian. He’s written all kinds of incredible books, but here are my short thoughts on just two of his that I enjoyed this summer.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Everything about this book is incredible—the story, the retelling, the research, the context, the prose, everything. Quite rightfully, it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2000 for its succinct and measured retelling of the real maritime disaster (and subsequent survival story) that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.
Philbrick is, obviously, very well-versed in Nantucket’s history, having written numerous books on the subject. But he still tackles one of Nantucket’s most well-known stories with a warmth and calmness that will make even readers entirely new to Nantucket and the story of the ill-fated Essex feel welcome.
It’s a compelling and often horrifying read, but one which should not be missed. Even though the history of maritime disasters is not really my cup of tea, I loved this book. I’m not sure I would read it again—the details are often painful to read once, let alone twice—but I would definitely recommend it to almost anyone.
And if reading a great book about a difficult subject is too exhausting for you, you’re in luck: Ron Howard is directing a film version to be released in March 2015!
Abram’s Eyes: The Native American Legacy of Nantucket Island
One of Philbrick’s lesser-known books, Abram’s Eyes is also less focused and less exciting than some of his other work. Because the records of life on a tiny island 30 miles away from any other land before the English arrived are pratically nonexistent, it’s hard to craft any kind of exhaustive narrative about “native” life on Nantucket. However, Philbrick does his best and presents as coherent a book as is possible given the huge gaps in source material for the subject.
It’s not a barn-burner by any stretch, but it’s interesting and Philbrick makes some interesting leaps from one piece of evidence to the next. Obviously, if you’re interested in Nantucket and a fan of Philbrick, you won’t regret this read (particularly since it’s a quick one—even with its 304 pages, I read it in an afternoon)—but I think you can safely skip this one in favor of a different Philbrick if you’re on a prowl for a good piece of nonfiction. In the Heart of the Sea will do you in good stead and, if you’d rather not read about maritime cannibalism, Away Off Shore is a lovely read.