Books for the Reading: Moby-Dick or, the Whale: Part II

by Lynn Wienck, The Chisholm Trail Bookstore

Summer remains in Oklahoma with early morning heat rising to a high by afternoon. The ground foliage is summer brown between clumps of distinctive orange dirt. When the wind blows, dirt rises and hovers; trees remain permanently bent. It’s startling and familiar to see half-curled trees; the scene makes for a true tale. Truth is always outrageous, more so than fiction.

There’s always the true tale of shipwreck. Thomas Farel Heffernan’s Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex is biographical history during the whaling era. More specifically, the book recounts the fate of the whaleship, Essex, and her crew after being rammed by a whale.

By 1819, Nantucket, the small – approximately 47 square miles – half-moon island off the Massachusetts coast, was a thriving, prosperous site. Nantucket whalers were a large and close group, known around the world to each other. From Nantucket, twenty-one men sailed aboard the Essex; Owen Chase was the first mate. The ship, stove by a whale in 1820, sunk at sea.

All twenty men on board the Essex – one sailor left earlier – survived the whale staving; however, only eight survived until rescue. Owen Chase was one of the survivors; his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, of Nantucket was subsequently published in 1821. This narrative formed the basis of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or, the Whale. However, where Moby-Dick closes with the shipwreck, Owen Chase’s Narrative commences with the shipwreck and details the subsequent ordeal at sea.

Thomas Farel Heffernan in Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex includes the Owen Chase Narrative in its entirety, continues the sea survival story, provides a biography of survivors, presents additional history, speculates about Owen Chase’s Narrative ghostwriter, and introduces other accounts – literary or historical – of the shipwreck or similar incidents. (A little further research on my part strongly suggests that there was, at least, Narrative ghostwriter assistance.) As for Owen Chase, he remained a career sailor. The sea always calls the sailor.

Far from the sea, the wind blows in Oklahoma. The wind, like the sea, carries its own true tales.

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