I wanted to give this book a lower rating because of the poor transitions from observations on the persons in the scene (usually the Essex survivors, such as they were) to third-party sources of information augmented by the author's opinion that it was directly applicable to the original situation. To be fair, the starvation experiment from circa WWII probably did shed quite a bit of light on the men's behavior after being 2 months out on sea; I am less sure of some of the other attempts by the author. It just seemed like knowledge dumping.
Ultimately, given that I mainlined 2/3 of the novel in one shot and stayed up till dawn to do it, almost afraid to go to sleep because some details are just so nauseatingly real that I feel compelled to tag this as "horror", I feel obliged to bump up the rating to 5 stars.
My god, humans are sickening, destructive, hypocritical creatures, and I'm not even referring to the cannibalism part. Although my reading of Moby-Dick is still in-progress, that novel doesn't bother me nearly as much as this one did. Perhaps because the gruesome details are presented in such a florid writing style, way, way before my time as it were, that it seems unreal. Plus, the novel itself is fictional. In the Heart of the Sea is about a true account; apparently the very first time it was recorded that a (sperm) whale deliberately attacked a whaling ship, and after you read all about the cruelties of the (old) whaling industry, one cannot help but agree with a line towards the end of the book quoting a contemporary of the time who observed that after 30 to 50 years of intense whaling, the whales were becoming meaner, more aggressive - in other words, the whales were fighting back. Can you blame them?
What kept me awake all night was less the story and more the implications of it, I think. These whalers lose their ship in a freak attack by a sperm whale, a horrible consequence of their occupation. But they could have ensured their survival if they weren't so ignorant as to not have paid attention to news in recent years of trade in southeast Asia and prejudiced against the island natives, assuming they were all cannibals. How is that even your first thought about someone you have never met from a land you have never been to? Why was that such a strong fear? There is some period-typical cultural attitude I am probably not understanding (xenophobia? moral fear?) but I do believe the author's suggestion that the sailors, when presented with the choice of unknown islands or the sea they lived off of, picked the known quantity. The heavily implied irony being, of course, that they avoided the Pacific islands due to fear of cannibals and then became cannibals themselves.
I heard or read somewhere once that all disasters are the result of an accumulation of unfortunate choices or coincidences. The tragedy of the Essex certainly seems that way. The men involved (inexperienced, incompatible characters, unfortunately low social status, poor judgments) and their time period (the height of Nantucket's whaling glory, the inevitable results of over-harvesting, the insufficient knowledge) and the choices they made (just the destruction that this one ship's full of men did to not one but at least two islands, not to mention actions they took on the sea both on board the whaling ship and then on their makeshift lifeboats); all of it just adds up to be such a horrible experience I shudder to imagine what it might have been like to live through it. At the same time, I am revolted by all of it. It shouldn't have happened - but it did.