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September 16, 2008

Refreshed moments in history

Tales of survival at the brink of human endurance often unwind worshipfully. Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” the enthusiastic odyssey of explorers Lewis and Clark, and Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” a narrative driven by human frailty in the face of Mt. Everest, are prime examples.

But even before those adroitly crafted books reached our hands, most people already knew plenty about the Corps of Discovery. And who isn’t familiar with the inherent dangers faced by those who choose to ascend through the clouds into thin air? 

Fun as it is to ride shotgun with astute authors trumpeting their heroes, many of them aren’t taking us anywhere new. Wouldn’t it be a smash if a book opened a window for us to experience dramatic and significant moments in our history that had largely vanished into the shadows of time?

Two recent books do. 

You may not know that Melville’s “Moby Dick” was inspired by a real whale attack, a seemingly intentional ramming by an 80-foot sperm whale that sank the whaling ship Essex a thousand miles west of the Galapagos. Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” puts us on the Essex deck as the whale lines up for a second and fatal charge. 

The heroic tragedy of the Essex begins as stunned crew members frantically seize what provisions they can, then last the night tucked into three small whaleboats on a roiling sea of interminable, menacing black swells.

Philbrick grew up hearing his professor father’s tales of sea adventures. This father-son legacy triggers memories of Robert Louis Stevenson, who conjured the plot of “Treasure Island” as a bedtime story for his 12-year-old son. Philbrick relied heavily on a small collection of diaries, some lost for generations. His archival documents included a written account by first mate Owen Chase. 

As if fate-driven, Chase’s son William later joined a Nantucket whaling crew, where he loaned his new friend and fellow whaler Herman Melville his father’s written account of the tragedy of the Essex. Eleven years later, readers first saw the phrase “Call me Ishmael.”

Perhaps even less known than Chase’s story is that Theodore Roosevelt led an expedition to explore a 1,000-mile tributary of the Amazon. When National Geographic reporter Candice Millard first learned about Roosevelt’s journey, she began digging, ultimately finding the diaries of Roosevelt and his son Kermit. 

Following the string to its end, Millard hounded Roosevelt’s trail into the Amazon, where she met with the descendents of the tribes who still tell the legend of the American president who dared enter their forbidding domain. Having been there herself, Millard enables us to see and feel the unmerciful brutality of this milieu where the gutsy Rough Rider ultimately lay wounded, trembling and immobilized.

“The River of Doubt” also became an award-winning national bestseller. Like Philbrick, Millard does not succumb to hero-worship, but lets harsh truth lead the way. Both books mesh into one unmistakable theme: unprotected man often shrinks and wilts in the face of nature unleashed. 

Still, most lived, and a few, like Chase and Roosevelt, bulled their way through. A handful of ghost-like Essex survivors were literally sucking the marrow from dead shipmates’ bones when the crew of a passing whaleship spotted them adrift. Roosevelt’s men also faced starvation and despondency. In the end, the former president was a mere shadow of himself. 

Leaders of both crews faced harrowing decisions. In “Heart of the Sea,” the young whalers urged the 30-year-old captain to let them draw lots to see who would be shot and eaten. When young Owen Coffin drew the unlucky lot, he placed his head on the gunwale, eyes closed. Captain George Pollard, holding a loaded gun, remembered the promise he made to the boy’s mother to protect him. When Roosevelt ordered his men to leave him to die, they turned to his habitually obedient son for a decision.

Urgent questions carry both books: Would the crew of the Essex survive on three ounces of hardtack a day? Would Roosevelt’s expedition come under poison-dart attack from suspicious, cannibalistic natives? 

The element of constant uncertainty raises these works into their own category, where we join the bone-weary but intrepid comrades as they wonder, with awe, what’s around the next corner.