Review: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

in the heart of the seaIn the Heart of the Sea
written by Nathaniel Philbrick
published by Penguin Books

find it here: (affiliate links) Barnes & Noble, Amazon, iBooks, Book Depository, Goodreads

Why did I pick this book: I’m enamored with Nantucket, MA with its stately homes and quaint cobblestone streets.  It’s hard to fathom that all that peaceful Quaker charm was largely funded by the gruesome and dangerous practice of slaughtering whales for their oil. So I guess it was the setting that caught my attention.

Did I enjoy this book: I did. It was long and detailed. I read it over the course of six weeks where I put the book down to read some lighter comedy or chick lit. But the book continued to beckon my attention. describes In the Heart of the Sea as the, “true life horror that inspired Moby Dick.” Indeed, Melville himself documented in his masterpiece meeting the Captain of the Essex and described him as, “the most impressive man . . . that I ever encountered.”

Ok -enough with the name dropping. This book gets off to a slow start but mightily rewards the reader who sticks it out to the end. Great stories force us to examine some aspect of ourselves, our beliefs, and/or the culture around us. In the Heart of the Sea deals with the depths of human suffering and ultimately how we survive the unsurvivable.  This novel sails somewhere south of Viktor Frankl’s  Man’s Search for Meaning but never quite reaches the depths of depravity that we see in Joseph Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness. But that undefinable grey area frequently described as “situational morality” makes this story memorable and worth exploring.


Would I recommend it: Yes.

Will I read it again: I will not.


About the book – from Goodreads: In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex—an event as mythic in its own century as the Titanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In a harrowing page-turner, Nathaniel Philbrick restores this epic story to its rightful place in American history.

In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During ninety days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

In the Heart of the Sea tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever. Philbrick interweaves his account of this extraordinary ordeal of ordinary men with a wealth of whale lore and with a brilliantly detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship’s cabin boy. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the same issues of class, race, and man’s relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea will endure as a vital work of American history.





  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. It sounds quite heavy, so I don’t blame you for taking breaks with lighter reads.