Two Whale Tales

rush-ohIn my Best of 2016 post, I mentioned that it is sometimes better to wait before reading the hot new books to see which ones really deserve the hype. Or which ones float to the surface…like a rotting whale carcass ready to be harvested of its precious oil. That might be stretching a metaphor, but it does lead me into talking about Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, my first book of the year and one that I didn’t wait long enough to see if it was a sinker or a floater.

Rush Oh! is set in 1908 and narrated by a girl, Mary Davidson, who lives in Eden, NSW, Australia. Her father, Fearless George Davidson, is a well-respected master whaler set on by hard times. He hunts the leviathans that enter Eden’s bay with the aid of a pod of killer whales. Either the “Killers” (as they are known in the book) alert the citizens to the appearance of a whale, or they appear to help corral and tire the beast once the whaleboats are upon it. The whalers repay the Killers by giving them the carcass to pull to the bottom and feast on the lips and tongue. When the carcass bloats and rises, the whalers get to haul their spoil home to render the oil. But in 1908, the whaling industry is in decline. Not as many whales enter the bay for the humans and Killers to hunt as in years past, and George and family are struggling to make ends meet. Mary’s mother has passed away, so she is in charge of cooking and feeding George’s motley whaling crew with whatever she can scrape together. Sometimes it’s not much. She also develops a love interest in the mysterious former Methodist pastor who joins her father’s crew.

Easily the most exciting and sparkling parts of this book are the whaling scenes, and the relationship between the whalers and the orca pod. The hunt scenes are detailed, exciting, gruesome, scary and sad — and really put you in the whale boats with the crew. Barrett explains at the end of the book that Fearless George was a real whaler who really hunted with the help of pack of killer whales. It’s an amazing relationship and each killer whale had a unique personality that was known to the town. Killer whales live a long time, and this pod and their antics and the assistance they gave the whalers of Eden became well-known.  I really enjoyed these aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Mary was a well-used or very interesting narrator. Her “romance” with the pastor is dull and shallow and, being a girl, she doesn’t join the whaling adventures (although she narrates it — odd now that I think about it). This book is a great example of an author having some juicy real-world source material to build a story around, but having the real-world bits outshine the fictitious. (The Son also suffers from this problem somewhat.) While I love the idea of a female narrator in a whaling tale, this book fell short. Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Nusland, for example, has a much more interesting female narrator and story sprung from this male character-dominated setting.

I read Rush Oh! while on a short getaway to the Sonoma coast. It rained the entire time, so it was just a lot of reading and hot tub soaking (could have been worse!). On the way home, we stopped by the bookstore in Point Reyes Station (under the new ownership of an enthusiastic young couple), and my husband, my enabler, found a wonderful old book called Arctic Roving or The Adventure of a New Bedford Boy on Sea and Land by Daniel Weston Hall, edited by Jerome Beatty, Jr. and illustrated by William Hogarth. I am doing the TBR Rudux dare, but we got stuck in horrid Bay Area traffic, so what’s a poor woman to do but crack open the only book at hand…

arctic-rovingsThis slim book (144 pages), republished in 1968 from the 1861 original, is the memoir of “a fifteen-year-old boy on board whaleship CONDOR…his escape from the cruelties of shipboard life, his winter in the Siberian wilderness and his rescue and eventual return to the United States.” While not super detailed or sophisticated, it’s full of exciting adventure like the best parts of Rush Oh! with some of the danger, roughness, and hardship of The North Water. Hall was badly beaten and abused by the captain of the Condor. If he hadn’t escaped and been taken care of by a native medicine man, he likely would have died. I was also amazed that he was rescued because his father, finding him not aboard the Condor when it returned to New Bedford, put a notice in a whaling paper asking any ships headed to the Okhotsk Sea to look for his son on the shore. And they do! And he was found by a sailor who was ordered by his captain to row ashore each morning to look for him! Such a rescue seems so serendipitous and improbable to me when I need my GPS and iMessage just to meet a friend for lunch.

Beyond the story itself, the editor helpfully footnotes whaling jargon and gently corrects any faulty historical details in the narrative. The illustrations are charming and the book is laid-out in a manner reminiscent of nineteenth century publications. It was a great find (thanks, honey!) and equally serendipitous that it landed in my hands on the heels of Rush Oh! (so I just had to break my TBR dare with it, right?) I highly recommend this little gem if you can find a copy.

Rush Oh!
library copy
2.5/5

Arctic Rovings
personal copy
5/5

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