The best whaler books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about whaler and why they recommend each book.

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In the Wake of Madness

By Joan Druett,

Book cover of In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon

Studying the journals of the surviving crew, the historian of this real-life nineteenth-century tragedy pieces together the situation aboard the ship that set sail out of Massachusetts for the whaling grounds of the North Pacific. What happens aboard makes the literary Captain Ahab's monomaniacal actions seem heroic in comparison. Druett's true-crime-at-sea story provides a brutal counterpoint to the American epic, Moby Dick, and calls to mind The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, a true account that is said to have inspired Melville. I pick Druett's account because of its historical true-crime approach, and because it is a lesser-known account.

In the Wake of Madness

By Joan Druett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Wake of Madness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After more than a century of silence, the true story of one of history's most notorious mutinies is revealed in Joan Druett's riveting "nautical murder mystery" (USA Today). On May 25, 1841, the Massachusetts whaleship Sharon set out for the whaling ground of the northwestern Pacific. A year later, while most of the crew was out hunting, Captain Howes Norris was brutally murdered. When the men in the whaleboats returned, they found four crew members on board, three of whom were covered in blood, the other screaming from atop the mast. Single-handedly, the third officer launched a surprise attack to…


Who am I?

Linda Collison's composite career has included critical care and emergency nursing, freelance writing and novelist, and teaching skydiving. She has sailed many bluewater miles with her husband, Bob Russell, aboard their sloop Topaz, based in Hawaii. Their three-week sailing experience aboard the HM Bark Endeavour, a replica of Captain Cook's three-masted 18th century ship, inspired Linda to write Star-Crossed, an historical novel published by Knopf in 2006, and a New York Public Library pick in 2007 for Books for the Teen Age. Star-Crossed has been republished as the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series from Fireship Press. Her sailing experiences also inspired the novel Water Ghosts, a Foreword Reviews finalist for Independent Book of the Year, 2015.


I wrote...

Water Ghosts

By Linda Collison,

Book cover of Water Ghosts

What is my book about?

"I see things other people don't see; I hear things other people don't hear." Fifteen-year-old James McCafferty is an unwilling sailor aboard a traditional Chinese Junk operated as adventure therapy for troubled teens. Once at sea, James believes the ship is being taken over by the spirits of courtiers who fled the Imperial palace during the Ming Dynasty, more than 600 years earlier, and sailing to its doom. A psychological nautical adventure with strong historical and paranormal elements.

Esteban - Volume 1 - The Whaler

By Matthieu Bonhomme,

Book cover of Esteban - Volume 1 - The Whaler

Another great nautical adventure from a stellar French cartoonist, Esteban is a sprawling tale of a Native American boy who winds up as the ship’s boy on a whaler, The Leviathan. This is a great nautical coming-of-age story with some absolutely stunning artwork—gorgeous waves, ice flows, and renderings of tall ships abound. Fortunately, it’s been translated recently and is available in English digitally. 

Esteban - Volume 1 - The Whaler

By Matthieu Bonhomme,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Esteban - Volume 1 - The Whaler as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Esteban, a young Native American boy of just 12-years-old, presents himself to the captain of the Leviathan for the post of 'harpooner', he's the laughing stock of the whole crew. But when the captain finds out that Esteban is the son of Suzanna of the Tehuelches tribe, he decides to take him on... as ship's boy. Despite his lowly post, this is Esteban's chance to discover the sailor's life, with all its hardship and its happiness, and maybe even a chance to prove what he's made of!


Who am I?

I grew up and have often lived around water and ships—Norfolk, VA, Aiea, Hawaii, Savannah, Georgia—and I’ve always had a fascination with things nautical. As a cartoonist, I’m of course always on the lookout for comics that overlap with this interest. Curiously, these sorts of stories seem to be few and far between in the U.S. but more of a genre staple in Europe—France in particular. I tried to highlight here not just books that I particularly like, but books that are representative of the breadth and depth that the comics medium can offer in art style, tone, and intended audience. I hope you enjoy some of these as much as I have!  


I wrote...

Oyster War

By Ben Towle,

Book cover of Oyster War

What is my book about?

In the coastal town of Blood's Haven, the economy runs on oysters. Oyster farming is one of the most lucrative professions, but also the most dangerous. Not just from the unforgiving ocean and its watery depths—there are also oyster pirates to worry about! Commander Davidson Bulloch and his motley crew are tasked with capturing these ne'er-do-wells—but they don't know that Treacher Fink, the pirates' leader, possesses a magical artifact that can call forth a legendary spirit with the power to control the sea and everything in it!

Petticoat Whalers

By Joan Druett,

Book cover of Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea, 1820–1920

Virtually every book on America’s whaling history focuses on men—the owners of ships and the crewmen who sailed on them. However, in the nineteenth century, women, and more specifically the captain’s wives, began appearing on whaleships in increasing numbers. Incredibly, by 1850, roughly one-sixth of all American whaling ships had these so-called “petticoat whalers” on board. Druett tells the fascinating stories of many of them, mixed in with more general whaling history.

Petticoat Whalers

By Joan Druett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Petticoat Whalers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Joan Druett offers an informed and accessible account of little known stories of wives of whaling captains who accompanied their husbands on long and arduous journeys to bring whale oil and blubber to New England. Surprisingly, by 1850 roughly a sixth of all whaling vessels carried the captains' wives. Invariably the only woman aboard a very cramped ship, they endured harsh conditions to provide companionship for their husbands, and sometimes even exerted a strong unofficial moral influence on a rowdy crew. Joan Druett provides captivating portraits of many of these wives and the difficult circumstances they endured.

Petticoat Whalers, first…


Who am I?

I am the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. This book was sparked by a painting I own of a whaling scene. Gazing at that painting, I often wondered what it was like to go whaling. Having Moby-Dick in school, I already knew a fair amount about whaling. But the painting continued to stir my curiosity, and soon I discovered that there were libraries devoted to whaling, providing almost unlimited material for a historical narrative. This book, then, is my attempt to weave that material into a maritime tapestry that attempts to do justice to America’s rich whaling heritage.


I wrote...

Book cover of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

What is my book about?

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Herman Melville proclaimed, and this absorbing history demonstrates that few things can capture the sheer danger and desperation of men on the deep sea as dramatically as whaling. I begin this vivid narrative with Captain John Smith's botched whaling expedition to the New World in 1614. Then I chronicle the rise of a burgeoning industry — from its brutal struggles during the Revolutionary period to its golden age in the mid-1800s when a fleet of more than 700 ships hunted the seas and American whale oil lit the world, to its decline as the twentieth century dawned.

The American Whaleman

By Elmo Paul Hohman,

Book cover of The American Whaleman: A Study of Life and Labor in the Whaling Industry

Author Hohman’s classic treatise offers readers the most complete—and interesting and readable—history of the business of whaling that is so vitally important, having been published in literally the year of the last working American whaleship (The Wanderer). It offers a rare contemporary history of the fifth largest industry in America—and the third largest in its home state of Massachusetts.

The American Whaleman

By Elmo Paul Hohman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The American Whaleman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book has been considered by academicians and scholars of great significance and value to literature. This forms a part of the knowledge base for future generations. So that the book is never forgotten we have represented this book in a print format as the same form as it was originally first published. Hence any marks or annotations seen are left intentionally to preserve its true nature.


Who am I?

Before becoming a writer I was widely acknowledged as a successful radio station executive, a business relying heavily on audience and other numerical information. That earned me the nickname “Data” (from Star Trek). Having written an article about a Black whaling captain for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine I became intrigued about how this could have occurred in the years of slavery and began buying and reading books on whaling to find that answer. About 100 such books resulted in my book on 50 some men who had attained that lofty rank; today I’m up to about 180 and/or I can attest I’ve read fundamentally all of the books on the subject.


I wrote...

Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy

By Skip Finley,

Book cover of Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy

What is my book about?

Whaling was the first American industry to exhibit any diversity, and the proportion of men of color people who participated was amazingly high. A man got to be captain not because he was white or well connected, but because he knew how to kill a whale. Along the way he would also learn navigation and how to read and write. Whaling presented a tantalizing alternative to mainland life. Working with archival records at whaling museums, in libraries, from private archives, and studying hundreds of books and thesis, I culled the best stories from the lives of over 50 Whaling Captains of Color to share the story of America's First Meritocracy.

The North Water

By Ian McGuire,

Book cover of The North Water

I am particularly drawn to stories about early adventures at sea. 

Life on a whaling ship was difficult and bred all manner of contemptible acts by the crew. When the journey was ill-fated, like the one in this book, it pointed the spotlight directly on the tainted core of ship life. 

This book introduced the greedy side of the 1800s whaling industry and told the story surrounding the doomed whaling ship and the ship’s drug-addicted surgeon. It presented the raw side of humanity and what lengths desperate men resort to in order to survive. It was shades of whaling seamen Herman Melville and John Rumell’s experiences surviving with savages. 

The story was riveting and begged the question: Who are the real savages?

The North Water

By Ian McGuire,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The North Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016
A NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN NOTABLE BOOK 2016

A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . .
1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship's surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the…


Who am I?

Some look through the glass and admire what lies beyond. I look beyond the glass and imagine what's ahead. What is an adventure? It's an encounter with the unexpected, an exquisite moment in time that can never be repeated, those memorable chapters in our personal story that cause us to go to the attic and lift the lid of the trunk. I've lived the experiences in my books because I walked the beaten paths where those stories were born and embraced the culture that colors the pages. I'm an intrepid traveler and adventurer with still a few personal chapters to write. As I look beyond the glass, I wonder… Will my trunk ever be full?


I wrote...

Cannibal King

By Nanine Case,

Book cover of Cannibal King

What is my book about?

In l847, young and daring John Rumell jumps ship on the French-occupied Marquesas Islands, inhabited by hostile cannibals. There, he becomes infatuated with the chief’s daughter, Princess Marita, a beautiful and irresistible temptress. To win the princess’s hand in marriage, John must kill her former lover and submit to a painful tattooing custom. Months later, he discovers he was tricked. Broken and permanently branded with tribal tattoos, John leaves the tribe, wandering aimlessly about the island.

When word reaches John that the chief is dying, he returns and accepts the dying man’s wish that he become their leader. John works tirelessly to form an alliance between his tribe and the French, ultimately leading his people toward a more peaceful existence.

The Sea-Hunters

By Edouard A. Stackpole,

Book cover of The Sea-Hunters: New England Whalemen during Two Centuries 1635 – 1835

Stackpole’s remarkable history of the men of whaling from its inception to its glorified height included the only mention of one Captain in my book—Peter Green—and why a Black man achieved the rank of captain, a role fundamentally omniscient as management ranks go. As historically significant is that his son, Matthew Stackpole—an adviser and personal friend—is credited with the restoration of America’s second oldest ship (after the U.S.S. Constitution), the Mystic Seaport Museum’s Charles W. MorganAmerica’s last whaleship whose last voyage’s Captain and entire crew were men of color.

The Sea-Hunters

By Edouard A. Stackpole,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sea-Hunters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This the first edition from 1953. In very rough condition.


Who am I?

Before becoming a writer I was widely acknowledged as a successful radio station executive, a business relying heavily on audience and other numerical information. That earned me the nickname “Data” (from Star Trek). Having written an article about a Black whaling captain for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine I became intrigued about how this could have occurred in the years of slavery and began buying and reading books on whaling to find that answer. About 100 such books resulted in my book on 50 some men who had attained that lofty rank; today I’m up to about 180 and/or I can attest I’ve read fundamentally all of the books on the subject.


I wrote...

Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy

By Skip Finley,

Book cover of Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy

What is my book about?

Whaling was the first American industry to exhibit any diversity, and the proportion of men of color people who participated was amazingly high. A man got to be captain not because he was white or well connected, but because he knew how to kill a whale. Along the way he would also learn navigation and how to read and write. Whaling presented a tantalizing alternative to mainland life. Working with archival records at whaling museums, in libraries, from private archives, and studying hundreds of books and thesis, I culled the best stories from the lives of over 50 Whaling Captains of Color to share the story of America's First Meritocracy.

Ahab's Wife

By Sena Jeter Naslund,

Book cover of Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel

This book inspired my own writing with its detailed rendering of 19th century life. It has all of my favourite things: lighthouses, ships, horses, buggies, wharves, and whales. “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband or my last.” How can you resist this first sentence? The novel’s massive lighthouse, and the child who has lived there all her life, inform some deep part of my world view.

Ahab's Wife

By Sena Jeter Naslund,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ahab's Wife as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the opening line--"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last"--you will know that you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller and in the company of a fascinating woman hero. Inspired by a brief passage in Melville's Moby-Dick, where Captain Ahab speaks passionately of his young wife on Nantucket, Una Spenser's moving tale "is very much Naslund's own and can be enjoyed independently of its source." (Newsday)

The daughter of a tyrannical father, Una leaves the violent Kentucky frontier for the peace of a New England lighthouse island, where she simultaneously falls in love with two…


Who am I?

I grew up in a quiet farming valley in Connecticut, but I moved to a wilderness farm in the maritime provinces of Canada, surrounded by spruce forests and close to the Bay of Fundy. My favourite places are those where there is more sky, seemingly, than land; more birds than people; more wind-blown fields than houses. My favourite books take us to landscapes where people must come to terms with environments whose extreme circumstances are challenges in and of themselves.


I wrote...

The Sea Captain's Wife

By Beth Powning,

Book cover of The Sea Captain's Wife

What is my book about?

Growing up on the Bay of Fundy in the 1860s, Azuba Galloway is determined to escape the confines of her town and live at sea. When she captures the heart of Captain Nathaniel Bradstock, she is sure her dreams are about to be realized, only to have pregnancy intervene. But when Azuba becomes embroiled in a scandal, Nathaniel must bring his young family abroad to save his reputation. Azuba gets her wish, but at what price?

Alone in a male world, and juggling the splendor of foreign ports with the terror of the open seas, Azuba must fight to keep her family together. The Sea Captain's Wife will captivate readers and critics alike.

Typee

By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life

Typee is Herman Melville’s account of his sojourn on the Marquesan Island of Nuku Hiva in the 1800s. It nearly replicated my distant relative’s story, making it a must-read.

Melville was a young sailor with an adventurous spirit. Disenchanted with his hard life on a whaling ship he deserted and escaped to Nuku Hiva’s Bay of Taipaivi where he was captured by a cannibal tribe. For four months, he lived and survived among savages. 

After Melville returned to civilization he later wrote Typee – the story that forever changed how I view savages. A century-plus later, I stepped freely off a boat onto Nuku Hiva’s distant shore. Visions of the impetuous and foolhardy sailor relative whose footprints I was about to trace made my scalp tighten with anticipation.  

Typee

By Herman Melville,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Typee as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Melville, Herman, Typee


Who am I?

Some look through the glass and admire what lies beyond. I look beyond the glass and imagine what's ahead. What is an adventure? It's an encounter with the unexpected, an exquisite moment in time that can never be repeated, those memorable chapters in our personal story that cause us to go to the attic and lift the lid of the trunk. I've lived the experiences in my books because I walked the beaten paths where those stories were born and embraced the culture that colors the pages. I'm an intrepid traveler and adventurer with still a few personal chapters to write. As I look beyond the glass, I wonder… Will my trunk ever be full?


I wrote...

Cannibal King

By Nanine Case,

Book cover of Cannibal King

What is my book about?

In l847, young and daring John Rumell jumps ship on the French-occupied Marquesas Islands, inhabited by hostile cannibals. There, he becomes infatuated with the chief’s daughter, Princess Marita, a beautiful and irresistible temptress. To win the princess’s hand in marriage, John must kill her former lover and submit to a painful tattooing custom. Months later, he discovers he was tricked. Broken and permanently branded with tribal tattoos, John leaves the tribe, wandering aimlessly about the island.

When word reaches John that the chief is dying, he returns and accepts the dying man’s wish that he become their leader. John works tirelessly to form an alliance between his tribe and the French, ultimately leading his people toward a more peaceful existence.

In the Heart of the Sea

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Book cover of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

A small lifeboat is spotted off the coast of Chile in 1821, below the gunnels skeletal men cling to a pile of human bones. Nathaniel Philbrick opens his National Book Award-winning story with an almost incomprehensibly brutal scene and rarely takes a breath for the remaining 300-odd pages. Considered to be the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is the true story of a ship stove in by a whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the harrowing survival of some of its crew. 

In the Heart of the Sea

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked In the Heart of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The epic true-life story of one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the nineteenth century - and inspiration for `Moby-Dick' - reissued to accompany a major motion picture due for release in December 2015, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker and Cillian Murphy.

When the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in 1819, the unthinkable happened. A mere speck in the vast Pacific ocean - and powerless against the forces of nature - Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale, and her twenty crewmen were forced to take to the open sea…


Who am I?

I grew up on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the raging Atlantic ocean. Both of my grandfathers spent their lives at sea. The power, and fear, that the ocean inspires has been a constant in my life, and most recently while working on Acadian Driftwood. Spending years working on a story so closely tied to tragedy, and the sea, I’ve consumed a lot of nautical disaster stories. While not everything on the list is a disaster (Nansen got his ship stuck in the ice on purpose) each story will make you rethink whether you ever want to head out to sea.  


I wrote...

Book cover of Acadian Driftwood: One Family and the Great Expulsion

What is my book about?

Growing up on the south shore of Nova Scotia, Tyler LeBlanc wasn’t fully aware of his family’s Acadian roots—until a chance encounter with an Acadian historian prompted him to delve into his family history. LeBlanc’s discovery that he could trace his family all the way to the time of the Acadian Expulsion and beyond forms the basis of this compelling account of Le Grand Dérangement.

LeBlanc tells the story of Joseph LeBlanc (his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather), Joseph’s ten siblings, and their families. With descendants scattered across modern-day Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the LeBlancs provide a window into the diverse fates that awaited the Acadians when they were expelled from their homeland. Some escaped the deportation and were able to retreat into the wilderness. Others found their way back to Acadie. 

Cannibal Old Me

By Mary K. Bercaw Edwards,

Book cover of Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville’s Early Works

One might read Melville’s accounts of the Pacific and reckon with only literary sources and contexts for his books. Bercaw Edwards lays bare the sounds of Pacific voices, the oral sources for his work. Drawing on a wealth of popular accounts as well as theories of discourse and linguistics, she identifies three “languages” Melville learned in his Pacific travels: sailor talk, (a rich world of yarns, folklore, and tall tales), “cannibal” talk (both islanders’ stories and the narratives they inspired), and missionary talk (accounts by religious leaders in the islands). Bercaw Edwards brings deep appreciation and unforgettable zest to Melville’s work, showing his remarkable ear and memory for rich varieties of speech and what they convey about cultural encounters. 

Cannibal Old Me

By Mary K. Bercaw Edwards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cannibal Old Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers an examination of Melville's 'borrowing'.At the age of twenty-one, Herman Melville signed on the whaleship Acushnet as a common seaman and sailed from Massachusetts to the South Pacific. Upon reaching Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, he deserted and spent a month ashore on this reputed 'cannibal island.' He departed as crew of another whaleship but was put ashore in the heavily missionized Tahitian islands after participating in a bloodless mutiny. Eventually making his way to Hawaii, he joined the crew of the American frigate United States and finally reached Boston in October 1844 after four years…


Who are we?

We approached our book, theme, and recommendations as readers and lovers of Melville’s work who were inspired by following in his footsteps to places “whole oceans away,” as he describes the Pacific in Moby-Dick. Melville traveled widely and kept up his travels throughout a lifetime of further exploration, as well as voluminous writing. We want to share the exhilaration of traveling with a writer: that is, by reading of Melville’s travels, traveling to the places he visited, and also hearing from people who know those places too. We hope our book gives readers contact with the many dimensions of global travel, in whatever form they find for themselves.


We wrote...

"Whole Oceans Away": Melville and the Pacific

By Jill Barnum (editor), Wyn Kelley (editor), Christopher Sten (editor)

Book cover of "Whole Oceans Away": Melville and the Pacific

What is our book about?

This is the first essay collection to consider Melville’s novels from the perspective of people in the Pacific Islands. Whether you have read Moby-Dick or not, Melville’s Polynesian adventures, which he converted into often sensational narratives, take readers to fascinating places. He won avid 19th-century admirers for portrayals of lush tropical scenery, tales of purported cannibalism, tattooing, sex, and violence, and often humorous mishaps. Today’s readers will want to know more, and this volume offers 21st-century perspectives on what Melville gleaned from his travels. Most importantly, what Melville described in Moby-Dick as “an everlasting itch for things remote” led to astounding reflections on the world and its splendid varieties of human nature. This book might accompany journeys around the globe—or simply to the bookstore.

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