“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week I’m going to get way too personal and talk about the brilliant book In the Heart of the Sea.
There was this one time, way back when I was maybe thirteen, my dad showed me a book that he had read and found interesting. My father is very specific in what he likes and always wanted me to share his tastes. Carrying it around, I continued perusing my own interests (I was, and always will be, obsessed with Star Wars), but he had offered to buy that one for me if I wanted. I agreed as I was excited to take a shot at some new stories and went home with the book all ready to go.
That book was Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea.
Long have I considered Moby Dick to be the great American novel. It’s a view I’ve held since I read a heavily abridged, illustrated copy when I was about seven. Adventure, new cultures, obsession, it had all the hallmarks of what would eventually form my adult tastes. My shelves have a few copies that I’ve acquired over the years and I often loan them out without the intention of ever getting the books back. What sold me on Philbrick’s book was that it contained a story that Moby Dick was based on. I didn’t have any clue at how nuts it really was.
Truth is often stranger than fiction. It’s a tired description but on occasion manages to be a reality. Moby Dick ends with the whale attacking the ship, sinking it and killing all but one man. The true story begins at that finale, with the whaleship Essex being sunk by a massive whale and all of the survivors being left in three tiny boats to try their hand at taming the ocean. From there we’re delivered a story of loss, family, friendship, and cannibalism. Yes, that’s right, full-on cannibalism. I was enraptured, devouring the book in one sitting. I’ve since blown through it multiple times and absolutely destroyed my copy. There are few books that profoundly gripped me like this, and it remains my single favorite piece of writing to this day.
It’s not about the disturbing aspects of the story, though they certainly stick in your head long after finishing the book. There are wonderful aspects of the prose that elevate a fascinating story to something so harrowing it’s hard to tear you eyes away. All of this, though, only serves as a vehicle for something so brutally human that it’s nearly impossible to tear yourself away. Philbrick transforms a historical study into something skinned down to the bone, and I mean that literally in places. You feel their suffering and their pain, the anguish they experience as they commit deeds unspeakable or bold, and each of the main survivors is whittled down from legends to merely people. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to it that I felt guilty reading in places, a window into the incredible depression and shame that this kind of suffering can display. This isn’t a comfortable story, and so much of that revolves around the idea that these people could be your neighbors. Those that survived went on to exist in a kind of limbo, floating from depression to being hermits to complete insanity. These were people that worked in public lives again. They served on ships, as night watchmen, and lived alongside people just trying to exist. Philbrick serves up a tale that says you can never go back from something like that.
When the film adaptation came out in 2015 my family was suffering. My uncle had just killed himself. This was the uncle that programmed me to love The Beatles, who bought me beautiful copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in hopes that I would adore them, and cemented the bookstore as a place of happiness and solace for me. My father was putting on a stone face but in some ways, he’s still inconsolable, as am I. Depression spreads like a disease when something like that strikes a family, and both of us are still recovering nearly four years later. He and I don’t bond over much, but that year he randomly decided he was taking all of us to see In the Heart of the Sea. I secretly wonder if it’s just because he needed to get away and sink into a story he’s always loved, and wondered if I didn’t need the same thing. The film was disappointing, but I’ll always have that night as a time when my dad and I could have a moment of peace in the middle of our own storm, lost at sea with the whole family ready to eat each other in their grief.
I’ve gotten too personal again, and I don’t need to wax poetic any further about this brilliant book. It remains my favorite thing that I have ever read, and I urge you to read it as soon as you can. You won’t regret it.