In the Heart of the Sea – book review

Heart of SeaNathaniel Philbrick’s account of the whaleship Essex (the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick) could be the textbook example of how truth is stranger than fiction. Philbrick draws heavily on the accepted contemporary narrative – the account of the doomed voyage from first mate Owen Chase. He adds to this his own extensive research into the island of Nantucket, and its place in the global economy of the time. Interestingly, he also draws on the more recently uncovered first person account written by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson – which paints a far less heroic version of Owen Chase.

The 240 tonne whaleship Essex left the port of Nantucket on August 12th 1819 to hunt whales and extract their natural oil (a process as pleasant as it sounds). At the time, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. Whale oil was used to light lanterns, and was in such high demand that even in a time of worldwide recession, business was booming on Nantucket. In 1821, two survivors of the Essex were found floating near Chile. The men were sunburnt and babbling, “sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates”. In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of everything that happens in between.

 I wasn’t sure if I should read this book at all. Moby Dick is a book I appreciate academically Chris chestrather than actually enjoy reading. I’m also very much #teamwhale, which is the main reason I haven’t seen the recent movie adaptation directed by Ron Howard. I imagine it would be far too visceral for me, both in terms of whale death and the destruction of Chris Hemsworth glorious chest! Let me be clear here, the whale deaths are not glossed over in this book:

 ”When the lance finally found its marks, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a fifteen-to twenty-foot geyser of gore that prompted the mate to shout. ‘Chimney’s afire!’ As the blood rained down on them, the men took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to watch as the whale went into what was known as its flurry. Beating the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws – even as it regurgitated large chunks of fish and squid – the creature began to swim in an ever tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the first thrust of the harpoon it ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, black corpse floating fin-up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.”

 Bear in mind, this was not a harpoon shot by a machine, but hand thrown by a man in a row boat in extreme proximity to the whale. Despite the gruesomeness of the subject matter in places, this book was a far more entertaining read than I could have imagined, and I am delighted I decided to take a chance on it. That Nantucket was predominantly Quaker makes the ruthlessness of the primary industry chosen by these pacifists fascinating – little wonder why Melville called the inhabitants of the island “Quakers with a vengeance”. The “clannish commitment to the hunt” on Nantucket; the environmental destruction the sailors caused on islands they encountered; the politics of life aboard the ships were all just as interesting as the main story. Philbrick’s enthusiasm for his subject is so contagious it gives this book the pace and narrative drive of fiction. The main story – the will to survive; man vs nature; the descent into cannibalism – could have been overblown in fiction, however, in Philbrick’s hands, it is credible and fascinating. Highly recommended.

 In the Heart of the Sea is published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.


The Wicked Boy – book review

wickedboyIn West Ham in 1895, two young brothers suddenly seem to have a bit more money and freedom than usual. Robert and Nattie Coombes, twelve and thirteen respectively spent a few weeks going to the theatre; to cricket at Lords; frequenting the coffee shops around the docklands, and telling anyone who enquired that their mother was visiting Liverpool. Truth will out however, and the boys are ultimately discovered smoking and playing cards at home in a room that reeks of their decomposing mother.

Robert and Nattie are placed on trial for matricide, and Robert admits to killing her in her bed with a knife he had purchased for that purpose. In his version, Nattie is in on the murder, while Nattie claims he was completely innocent. The damage done to Robert’s psyche by his love of penny dreadfuls was a large part of his trial, much as video nasties/computer games/listening to Marilyn Manson have loomed large in modern cases. The shape of Robert’s skull is analysed, to assess if he fits Lombroso’s criminal type, as outlined by vogueish ‘science’. The focuses of the trial, the press coverage, the societal fallout tell us as much about Victorian society and its attitudes to childhood and criminality as they do about the ‘wicked boy’ whose motive for matricide is never uncovered.

This is as good a place as any to admit I am a big Kate Summerscale fan. Her books set the historical scene perfectly, and her latest is no exception. Small social interest details are used to give a clear picture of the setting but are never extraneous to the plot – for example, a long drought had impacted on sanitation, which meant that West Ham was unusually noxious at the time of the crime, which in turn helps to explain how the stench from the house went unnoticed. A story this salacious would be front page news now, so to get some idea of the level of fascination in the area at the time she informs us: Continue reading “The Wicked Boy – book review”

Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’

Toni Morrison’s treatment of memory is a frequently disturbing revisiting of those aspects of history that have been covered over – for her, black history is not about Conrad’s unspeaking1 but rather a denial of the right to tell her ‘ghastly tale’. Intent as she is on remembering history, she explores old wounds that have since healed over – memories are as hard and livid as scars, and page after page of Morrison’s work aches at the inhumanities undergone by America’s blacks, with the intention of allowing these reopened to finally heal properly.

Memories in Toni Morrison are generally scarring, although they can be visible or invisible. In Beloved, Sethe will forever carry a tree on her back, “A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (Beloved: 16) in memorandum of the nightmare life that she had at Sweet Home, a tree of scars commemorating the beating that made her run away and caused her husbands breakdown. Sethe has obvious scars which Paul D. and Amy Denver can see, and name, and use to make Sethe recount the tale behind them – and yet Sethe herself is closed to their significance. For Sethe, “the picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”(Beloved: 6) – the skin around Sethe’s tree of scars is completely numb, an “absence of physical sensation…[signaling]… the emotional dissociation Sethe experiences”2. Not facing up to the memory in the chokecherry tree is the real reason she feels nothing when Paul D. kisses it better; Sethe knows that “Somethings go. Pass on. Somethings just stay” and knows also that “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Beloved: 35), factors combining into her belief it is not worth the pain of acknowledging the significance of her tree. Perhaps Paul D. is in a worse position than Sethe: his scars are internal and he has to fight his own battles- he has never spoken of his time under the Schoolteacher in Sweet Home to anyone, and it is only in accidental defense of the actions of Sethe’s husband Halle, who was ‘broken’ by witnessing the assault on his wife, that Paul D. confesses how difficult stoicism can be, admitting “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside”(Beloved: 69). Paul D. has none of the physical markings of trauma for someone like Sethe to kiss better- even his eyes do not have the usual wildness which Sethe believes follows on from having worn a bit; and so his fight with memory holds the potential for more pain than Sethe. It is not the repression of memory which haunts Sethe, she is plagued by memories3, but Paul D. has to conquer his repression and his tendency to keep his painful remembering “where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.”(Beloved: 72).

Morrison’s Jazz has a different approach to the scarring of memory- the wound caused by the Violet/Joe/Dorcas love triangle is never allowed to close over by Joe and Violet, causing a different kind of pain for the couple. Instead of trying to forget the causes and consequences of Joe’s murderous and Violet’s mutilating responses to Dorcas, the Trace’s choose to set her picture in a prominent place in their home and ‘visit’ it at regular intervals on the night, using her, as Peterson points out, as a means to “reach back into the more distant past to re-collect the stories that will enable them to comprehend their present situation”4. By disallowing present healing and keeping the ‘Dorcas-wound’ open, Violet forces Joe to deal with the scarring his constant remaking of himself has caused, and to deal with all the debris carried by a man who has made himself new seven times, before reaching a pure resolution of the Dorcas wound also, through the figure of Felice and the reconciliation dance. The most complex and rewarding treatment of memory of all is in Paradise, where we are presented with a very different tree of scars- the family trees Patricia Best draw up point to a collective scarring more dangerous even than Beloved‘s. Where Beloved explored maternal love and Jazz sexual love, Paradise contemplates a devout community where divine love is a potent, if increasingly challenged concept, and where an explosive hatred runs down the genealogical tree of scars until it reaches explosion point. Continue reading “Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’”

‘Little Big Man’ & ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’- the impact of history and mythology on the individual subject

The American West is as problematic a concept as the American Dream; while there was, and is, an American West, it is presented to us in cinema as an intangible and elusive ideal. All Westerns, even revisionist Westerns seeking to portray the ‘true’ West such as Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are to some degree effected by the fact that “[t]he history of the West has been consistently revised in accord with the dream” (Hine 1). As a result, I intend to approach these films by firstly analysing the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘mythology’, and to proceed from these concepts to their impact on the individual in the films in question.

It may seem ludicrous to suggest that history is a concept in need of explanation- the linear progress that is the western conception of history means that history is the clearly defined, rational understanding we have of past events, and the present we have today is built upon history’s foundations. However, even if we are able – as we never are in the instance of the American West- to strip history bare of the mythology that embellishes it, history is never ideologically pure, as best described by an ancient Tibetan saying “until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter”. The most obvious example of this is the Manifest Destiny outlook to exterminating the Native American population until well into the twentieth century. Until very recently, history told us little of the diverse cultural groups that peopled America before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance of the nations history began to annihilate their culture. Perhaps it is true that, as Kevin Brownlow would have it “[n]o-one goes to the Western for a history lesson”, yet as the Western is often the dominant means for the public to appropriate the history of the West, surely it has a responsibility towards accuracy (Brownlow quoted in Maltby 34).

As Wright points out, the Western obsession with the settlement of the American West locates Westerns in a historically specific, chronologically limited time frame of the thirty years between 1860 and 1890. In 1861 the Indian wars began as the Cheyenne found the Colorado goldminers invading their lands; 1862 saw the passing of the Homestead Act. By 1890 all Native Americans had either been exterminated or placed on reservations, as the previous year saw the last ‘unoccupied’ area in America (the Oklahoma territory) opened to homesteaders in a massive land rush (5). A thirty year period would not be difficult to portray in a historically correct manner if the filmmaker so wished, yet the mythmakers of the West appear to be relatively unconcerned about accuracy of any kind- John Ford, for instance, notoriously demanding his crews research the people/place they were to film and then telling them to “Ignore all that and make a movie!”. The myths and legends created about the West are more popular, and hence more powerful, than the history of the West – “The legend is inescapable. The history exists because the legend exists. The history of the West is in a sense a subgenre of the Western, and revisionist history a subgenre of that” (Maltby 39). Continue reading “‘Little Big Man’ & ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’- the impact of history and mythology on the individual subject”