July 14 – 20, 2017Vol. 19, No. 6

Book Review: The Wreck of the Essex

by Martha F. Barkley

When I first began reading "The Story of Thomas Nickerson," "blubber boilers" caught my mind's eye. Maine author Kathryn Swegart, pen name K. F. Griffin, presented in May at our Belgrade Public Library with her husband Robert showing slides.

Herman Melville read Owen Chase's version of the Essex tragedy which became the classic Moby Dick. Our Rome historian researched the fourteen-year-old Thomas Nickerson's version of the Essex sinking and survivors. Nickerson recalled his experience as a young man on board the famous whaler. It was finally discovered a hundred years after it had been written. This discovery caught the author's eye in a newspaper article.

Now we have a middle school history of the great sea tale. Many of us have plowed through the huge Moby Dick epic classic novel. Most of us know Gregory Peck in the Moby Dick movie. Recent versions of In The Heart of the Sea show the same classic tale with references to Nathaniel Philbrick's in-depth history. Griffin highly recommended reading Philbrick. I agree.

The great white whale that rammed a whaling vessel has only been recorded once. This middle school version has much to offer in its glossary of whaling terms, map of the Pacific showing pivotal places of the history, cover art of "flukes up" and what I love best: Hannah West-Ireland rendition (2015) of Maximus the whale ready to ram the ship.

Saint Brendan the Navigator is quoted, "Fear not brothers, for our God will be unto us a helper, a mariner, and a pilot: take on the oars and helm, keep the sails set, and may God do unto us, his servants and his little vessel, as he wills." The freshwater spring miracle in the saltwater at Henderson Island is one example of the guardian repeatedly felt by the crew during the many trials of survival. When all seemed lost, the guardian sailor's guidance was felt and followed by the survivors.

The great ships that sailed the world during the whale oil trade, many anchored at Nantucket. Thomas Nickerson signed on the crew at age fourteen and survived the ramming and sinking of his ship from November 20, 1820 until February 18, 1821. Only five survived the distance of 2,500 miles. Three crew members remained on Henderson Island and rescuers came for them later.

This maritime history of survival has an after story which almost seems impossible. All five survivors, including the young Nickerson, continued to make a living on board ships. They returned to the sea . . . can you believe their bravery?

Besides all the knowledge gained about harpooning whales, the exciting Nantucket sleigh ride, cutting up the huge carcasses, and boiling the blubber for oil, I found this passage intriguing: "I know how to fix it," I said. "I will swim under the boat and hold a hatchet to the loose board. When nails hit the hatchet, they will clench the board together."

"For the first time, I was talking to Owen Chase, man to man. Mr. Chase bent down to study the space between the boards. To my amazement, he listened . . . "

Young Nickerson was successful in this repair . . . only in this young account of repairing a whale ship can we find this history. Thanks to K.F. Griffin for bringing the Moby Dick classic closer to home for readers, both young and not so young. All ages can learn from this history.

I also recommend [Sena Jeter] Naslund's novel Ahab's Wife, because she tells the story of the years and years Nantucket wives spent waiting while their husbands were at sea. Were they dead or alive? Wondering and worrying, her novel enlightens the rest of the story, while our local Rome author tells whaling from a teenage point of view.

All these titles are available at our Belgrade Public Library.