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Reviews of Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" and Barbara Neely's "Blanche Passes Go" 

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Survivors on the Sea
"In the Heart of the Sea" (Viking, $24.95) by Nathaniel Philbrick is a comprehensive, evocative narrative that brims with historical application and paints the tragedy of the whaleship Essex in rich colors of empathy and abject horror at the extremities of human suffering.

The projected three-year voyage of the Essex began on Aug. 12, 1819, from Nantucket harbor. The vessel was captained by George Pollard Jr., a solid leader with a rugged ability to make quick decisions without worrying about ruffled egos. His first mate, Owen Chase, was a proven navigator and was skilled in developing cooperation between the crew and the captain. A third important character in this unforgettable drama is Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy of 15, approaching his first voyage with an attitude of starry-eyed romanticism. The author patiently dissects each feature of whale hunting from the specialized tasks of each crewmember.

On March 20, 1829, 15 months into the voyage, the unthinkable and unpredictable happens: The Essex is deliberately rammed by an enraged sperm whale and is summarily demolished. The 20-man crew has to consolidate whatever food and water it can salvage into three whaleboats and must withstand every conceivable dimension of physical and psychological hardship while waiting for a miraculous rescue. The crew is forced to endure drastic physical debilitation as one by one, their comrades perish from starvation and acute dehydration, and the group is finally compelled to resort to the most abhorrent actions to insure the survival of some.

This reader marveled at the fortitude and faith of those who lived through the ordeal, particularly Nickerson, whose carefree, childlike outlook was forever altered and who eventually wrote a memoir. The author will remind the reader how the Essex tragedy greatly influenced Herman Melville in the writing of "Moby Dick." This book is able to relate the most shocking, repugnant steps the men felt they had to take, and Philbrick does so tastefully and sympathetically. Most of All "Heart of the Sea" conveys the tortuous imagery of men subjected to the cruelest experiences and how the relentless uncertainty and hopelessness as well as physical deprivation can affect even the strongest human being.

— Bruce Simon



A Southern Stew
Barbara Neely has a good thing going with her "Blanche" series, and her latest, "Blanche Passes Go," (Viking, $22.95) is just as enjoyable as the other three books in the series.

Blanche White (her name embarrasses her as much as it amuses others) is a black housekeeper who has a penchant for playing detective. Her methods are not always orthodox, nor do they always pay off the way she expects them to, but eventually the crime is solved and that's what satisfies Blanche. Readers who don't share Blanche's experience as a poor single woman who earns her keep — and raises her dead sister's two children— by cleaning and cooking for people better off than she is, will learn a great deal about the black experience in this country as they follow her adventures and misadventures.

In Neely's latest, Blanche leaves Boston to come home to Fairleigh, N.C., for the summer so she can help her best friend since childhood, Ardell, with her booming catering business. Reality slaps her in the face, however, when she runs into the white man, David Palmer, who raped her eight years ago. Then a young woman is murdered, and Blanche believes Palmer might be involved. Blanche never reported her rape to the authorities, but now she vows to seek revenge against Palmer.

Adding a bit of spice to this Southern stew — and a little sex to Blanche's middle years — is a handsome train conductor, a widower who's trying hard to learn today's rules for courting a respectable woman.

Feisty and proud, down-to-earth and true-to-life, Blanche is a unique central figure in quick-read mysteries today. And through her, Neely has found an effective way to make her points about social class and racial prejudice as easy to swallow as Blanche's muscatel-laced Gig From Hell Dessert Sauce, the recipe for which follows the book's final chapter.

Blanche, the book, and the dessert sauce are equally delicious.

- Don Dale





Heads-up
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill seems to have dogs on the mind. They are releasing two books that should be certain to please pet lovers. First has come "Southern Dogs & Their People" with wonderful photographs by P.S. Davis, edited by Roberta Gamble, and with an introduction by Clyde Edgerton ($14.95). Opposite each photo is a quote from a well-known Southern writer.

The second Algonquin dog book is "Bark If You Love Me," by Louise Bernikow ($18.95). This one is a people-plus-dog love story and will be released in October.


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