ATTLEBORO — “In the Heart of the Sea” is about a voyage that spans thousands of miles, from Nantucket to the tip of South America to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and back again.
Author Nathaniel Philbrick’s voyage began in Wrentham, just a few miles from where he stood Thursday night in the Bishop Feehan High School auditorium before about 300 people. He was giving the keynote address in Attleboro’s Big Read campaign, which this year is encouraging everyone in the city to read his history of a 19th century whaling ship’s disastrous run-in with a killer whale.
It was in the mid-1980s, Philbrick was living with his wife Melissa and their children in the Sheldonville section of Wrentham. He was a stay-at-home dad trying to become a writer; she was “the breadwinner,” he said, a lawyer commuting to Boston from the Franklin commuter rail section.
While commuting, Melissa saw an ad in a newspaper for a lawyer position in Nantucket. That’s it, Nathaniel said, let’s move to Nantucket.
So, in September 1986, they packed the kids into their Chevy Nova and headed for a ferry that would take them to the little island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
Philbrick had been intrigued by Nantucket ever since he was in high school in Pittsburgh. His father, a college English professor, had urged him to read “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville’s classic novel about a sailor’s quest to slay a great white whale. The tale begins on Nantucket.
Philbrick, like many at that age, had no desire to do as his father asked.
“It was nauseating for a teenage boy,” he said of the thought of reading “Moby-Dick.”
However, he learned that he would have to read his father’s favorite book if he wanted to graduate from college. And when he did, his world changed.
“I was immediately harpooned,” he said.
Philbrick said that when his family moved to the island from Wrentham, “I was almost immediately enraptured with Nantucket.”
He became engrossed in the island and its past. Nantucket’s rich whaling history could be seen in the buildings and even in the cobblestone street that runs through the middle of its downtown.
Philbrick learned about the Essex, the whaling ship that left Nantucket 200 years ago only to be destroyed by an 85-foot sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The story of the Essex and its crew’s fight for survival was as famous in the 19th century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the 20th.
“It’s one of the great survival tales of all time,” he said.
Many books had been written about the Essex over the years. But none had truthfully told what the crew really experienced as they clung to life with little hope for food or fresh water.
Telling the survivors’ tale is what Philbrick really wanted to do. And he achieved it with the help of Thomas Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was the youngest crew member of the Essex, just 14 years old when they set sail from Nantucket. Many years after the disaster, Wilkinson told his story to an author, Leon Lewis.
Lewis asked him to write down his experiences and he said he would try to turn it into a book, but he never did.
Wilkinson’s writings were discovered in the 1980s and given to a Nantucket historian. Philbrick was the first author to use Wilkinson’s account, and it became the basis for “In the Heart of the Sea.”
Other accounts had been colored by crew members trying to cover up mistakes they made during the Essex’ voyage. But Wilkinson’s diary contained vivid details of the encounter with the whale and the aftermath.
That aftermath included cannibalism as the crew members tried to survive. To better understand what would drive men to that extreme, Philbrick also did scientific research.
Once, he said, his attempt to borrow a magazine article called “The Nutritional Value of Cannibalism” raised eyebrows at the Nantucket library.
But his ability to mix scientific fact with real-life accounts drove the narrative of “In the Heart of the Sea.”
The book, published in the summer of 2000, became a bestseller, earned National Book Award honors and eventually became a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth.
After his hour-long talk Thursday night, Philbrick answered questions from the audience and autographed copies of his books.