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Revenge of the Whale by Nathaniel Philbrick

September 28, 2012

Book Review from a Christian Mom’s Perspective:  Revenge of the Whale, adopted for young people from the New York Times Best Seller, In the Heart of the Sea   Lexile 1170

Listing a book by genre can be tricky. While I would classify Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex  as History or True Adventure, neither of those descriptions warn the reader about the gruesome side of the story.

This is the true story of the last voyage of the Essex, a whaling ship which sailed from Nantucket in 1819. Like the tail of Moby Dick, this whaling ship is the victim of a whale which, by all accounts, intentionally capsizes and destroys the ship.  It is thought that Melville got his inspiration for Moby Dick from the chronicles of the Essex.

In Revenge of the Whale, the economic importance and 19th century East Coast tradition of whaling is explained. There is enough detail about the actual harvesting of whales to paint an accurate picture of the primitive and brutal methods of whaling.

The real chill comes in the survival story of the shipmates. After the ship is capsized, twenty crew members set off in three relatively small whaling boats. The boats are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an area largely unexplored and unmapped at the time of the event.

The crew members are exposed to the elements, without fresh water or food. The situation is the most extreme and their survival is tenuous at best. One by one the men succumb to the conditions. Anarchy and treason are just below the surface of their existence as a crew.  The crew of twenty is finally whittled down to five.

The men of the Essex are tested beyond what most can endure. Many become delirious, slipping in and out of consciousness and dream states. Some have mental breakdowns. The painful effects of starvation and dehydration are explained with the kind of detachment you would expect to find in a medical reference book.

It is in these horrid conditions that they resort to cannibalism to save themselves. At one point they cast lots to see who will shoot a dying man, by his request. It is a concept most of us cannot fathom, and the author is successful in showing us these are ordinary men, and sailors who value honor, but in such circumstances they are driven to behavior  they never would have thought possible.

If the onset of the cannibalism had occurred just prior to their rescue, the reader may have been spared some anxiety, but this is a true account, and the remaining members of the Essex were lost at sea for over 90 days. The cannibalism began around the 60th day of their ordeal.

When the five are rescued, they are barely recognizable as humans. They are mere shadows of the hearty sailors who set out from Nantucket, hoping to make enough pay to continue providing for their families for another year. The rescue ships find skeleton-men clutching bleached, gnawed human bones.

As a parent I would use caution in introducing this book to children. It opens up a window to an era of large sailing ships, long voyages at sea, and the whaling industry with its unique customs and culture. It opens for discussion a world where cell phones, helicopters, GPS, and satellites don’t exist;  life is precarious;  and no quick cure is guaranteed.

Revenge of the Whale is a gritty account of human endurance and holds lessons for us in our comfortable homes with full refrigerators, but it is gruesome and disturbing .


  • There is so much disturbing detail in this book, I cannot list specific passages.  It has redeeming qualities and definite points of discussion, and I can imagine it being used as a study tool for history or social studies, but only the parent can decide if the balance of the message is appropriate.
  • In some online reviews I have seen this book listed as assigned reading in schools, in which case I simply advise parents to read it before letting their children read it.
  • “Divine Providence” and the belief that God allows these men to endure such hardship and can just as easily “snatch them from peril” is related
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