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Finding comfort and escape in a whale of a tale

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- In a pandemic, people turn to comfort items -- a special piece of clothing, a favorite snack or meal, the musical album that served as the soundtrack to their senior year of high school.

Me? I turn to big, impenetrable books. And the sea.

That means, of course, "Moby Dick."

Last summer, I went to see an exhibition called "Melville: Finding America at Sea," chronicling Herman Melville's life work and how it continues to inspire artists around the world.

Of all the gorgeous paintings, fun comic book covers and old newspaper clippings about Melville, I took photos of, the one thing that did not take up much of my time or attention was a thin volume, mildewed and yellow from time, whose extensive title page I snapped a picture of just to look at later. It reads:

"Narrative of the most distressing shipwreck of the whale-ship Essex of Nantucket; Which was attacked and finally destroyed by a large spermaceti-whale in the Pacific Ocean; with an account of the unparalleled sufferings of the captain and crew during a space of ninety-three days at sea, in open boats, in the years 1819 and 1820. By Owen Chase, of Nantucket, first mate of said vessel."

 

Now I'm thrilled that I took that picture while at the exhibition. I only made the connection between Chase's book and Melville's "Moby Dick" this week after reading Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 tome, "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" -- a book I ignorantly selected just because I needed a hit of real-life whale-induced sea terror. I hadn't even realized that the incident was the impetus for Melville's masterpiece.

You have to understand -- we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. People are suffering. Isolation is grinding people down. What better escape could there be than to read about triumph over adversity?

"In the Heart of the Sea" details agony, yes, but also provides a lot of amazing insight into the world the sailors grew up in, and returned to, after their voyages to the ends of the earth searching for whales.

Surprisingly, though, even as I went on to enjoy the gory details of what it was really like to find yourself in a wreck out at sea after a giant whale came at you -- Oh the thirst, the sorrow, the CANNIBALISM! -- so many other slices of life stayed with me.

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