Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
It began in the summer of 1997. I never seem to get much writing done in the summer. Nantucket is a madhouse in July and August, and for me it's been a time for sculpting an existing manuscript rather than creating a new one. That said, I was desperately trying to finish up a book called Abram's Eyes, about the island's Native American legacy. All summer I'd been wrestling with the epilogue. I was attempting to link the Indians' myths of Maushopa friendly giant who finally turns on his own family, beating his wife and transforming his children into killer whalesto Herman Melville's myth-making use of the Essex disaster, in which the whaleman's normally benign prey, the mammoth sperm whale, unaccountably attacks and sinks a Nantucket whaleship, but it just wasn't working.
It was during a family vacation in Maine that it came to me: how to finish the book I was working on and how to start the next one. We were sailing a chartered boat in Maine's Penobscot Bay when I found myself thinking less about the whale and more about the men and what had happened to them after the attack. Then it hit me, the scene with which I would begin In the Heart of the Sea: two emaciated survivors found sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. With the bones leading the way, I saw with a startling, almost instantaneous clarity that the Essex was something more than the whaling yarn that inspired Moby-Dick, it was one of the greatest survival tales ever told.
It wasn't until about three months later, in December of 1997, that I was able to turn my undivided attention to the Essex. Having by that point written two books of Nantucket history, I had almost a decade's worth of relevant research behind me. What I felt I needed more than anything else was a new angle on the island and whaling, a perspective that did not take Nantucket and its history for granted. So I decided to become a tourist in my own town.
With notebook in hand, I spent an afternoon at the Nantucket whaling museum, a place I'd visited countless times, but instead of looking for an answer to a specific question, I was in search of more general impressions. I came away from my three-hour ramble through what is an old candle factory stuffed with a fascinating assortment of artifacts with a renewed sense of the size and strength of the whale. There were iron harpoon shafts that had been twisted as if they'd been pieces of taffy. Somehow I'd never noticed them before, and if I had, I'd resisted the tendency to say, "Wow!" I began to see Nantucket as an almost medieval place, dominated by its own one-sided version of war, complete with tattered signal flags, portraits of its ocean-going knights of old, and decorated with the dusty bones of the defeated. In the basement of the museum is a huge whale oil cask, an object that made me see whaling as not just a battle but also a business. Whale oil, I realized, was what petroleum is to us today, and Nantucket, this little sandbank at the edge of a watery wilderness, was the Mobil Oil headquarters of the nineteenth century.
The biggest surprise while writing the book were the directions in which my research led me. I never would have anticipated, for example, integrating information about a starvation experiment conducted at the University of Minnesota during World War II in a book about a whaling voyage in the early nineteenth century. But it was the science, I began to realize, that made the story seem all the more real and frightening to a modern audience.
One anecdote about my starvation research: In December, a week or so before Christmas 1998, my wife stopped by our local library to pick up a copy of an article I'd ordered through Interlibrary Loan. The reference librarian greeted her with a look of concern. "Is Nat all right?" she asked. Somewhat bewildered, my wife assured her that, yes, he wasn't getting out much these days, but everything was fine. It wasn't until she was walking back to her car that Melissa looked to see that the article was entitled "The Nutritional Value of Cannibalism."
In 1820, Nantucket was a Quaker town. What do Quakers believe? Was it hypocritical of a Quaker community to embrace such a violent occupation as whaling?
Given their proximity to the shipwreck, why did the Essex survivors avoid the South Pacific islands? What factorshistorical, cultural, and otherwisecontributed to the decision to take a longer route home?
With what you've learned about the people of Nantucket and the whalemen in particular, can you explain their fearlessness in the face of nature? And, conversely, their great fear of strange human beings? How is our world different today? Does this account somewhat for our contemporary fascination with tales of man versus nature?
The book discusses a few potential reasons why the whale attacked the Essex. What are these and which do you believe to be true? Why was the notion of a vengeful whale so terrifying to Owen Chase? How do you think contemporary views of whaling differ from those in 1820? How would you explain this change in attitudes?
There are moments in the book where natural events are viewed by the author as metaphorical to the men's experiences. Choose one or two and discuss how the metaphors illuminate the story. Also, discuss their importance to the narrative.
What was the difference in the leadership styles of George Pollard and Owen Chase? Did these differences contribute to the demise of the Essex or the eventual loss of lives? If so, how? Who do you think made a better leader and why?
What was the established hierarchy on the Essex? How did this reflect the social stratification of Nantucket?
In 1820, what options did a captain have for navigating his ship? Which of these were available to the Essex? How did "dead reckoning" work? How have navigational tools evolved since then?
Did race have anything to do with who lived or died on the Essex? How?
In the Heart of the Sea has been optioned by a production company to be made into a feature film. Imagine you are the screenwriter chosen to adapt this book. What are the central dramatic situations you would choose and who would be your main character? Is there a clear protagonist? Is there a clear antagonist?
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