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In the Wake of Madness

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The whaleship Sharon of Fairhaven set off on May 25, 1841, for the whaling grounds of the northwestern Pacific. Three years later, the ship returned with only four of her original 29 crewmen. Her captain, Howes Norris, had been hacked to death by mutineers, and, according to the ship's log, the other 24 had either jumped ship or died. Maritime author Druett (Hen Frigates; Petticoat Whalers) embarks on a murder investigation mixed with equal parts whaling lore, mystery, retribution, and history. Her central thesis is that Captain Norris's aberrant behavior caused both the ship's remarkable number of casualties and desertions and the mutiny and his own death. Druett substantiates this through careful research into the written records left by the four original crewmen, and she adds depth and perspective to her lively narrative with details drawn from contemporary accounts of the hardships of shipboard life, as well as of the business of the early whaling industry. Although sometimes heavily dependent on speculation and surmise, Druett's venture into detection is an informative and vividly re-created picture of America's maritime past. Recommended for all libraries with a demand for maritime history.-Robert C. Jones, Warrensburg, MO Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Nonfiction accounts about whaling tend to intone Melville's name like a mantra, and Druett's volume about the bedeviled 1841-1845 voyage of the Sharon is no exception. By any measure, the expedition was a catastrophe, with mutiny, desertion and the mid-voyage murder of Capt. Howes Norris by South Pacific Kanaka tribesmen. "It is probably no coincidence," Druett writes, "that Captain Ahab found disaster in the same empty tropic seas where Captain Norris was killed." New Zealander Druett, a well-known maritime journalist (She Captains; Rough Medicine; etc.), doesn't focus on Norris's death. She's more interested in plumbing the "crucial questions" that "lurk unanswered," foremost among them: what caused the severe discontent among the crew? The answer turns out to be, unsurprisingly, Norris's beastly and sadistic treatment, mainly his frenzied persecution of black steward George Babcock. Druett draws on recently unearthed journals from the voyage to assemble a terrific account of an unusually eventful voyage. She has the good sense to maintain a light touch on the events, and manages a perfect balance between telling the story in an unfussy yet dramatic manner and honoring its complexity. Agent, Laura J. Langlie. (May 9) Forecast: True accounts of whaling voyages often do well. But is the market saturated by books like In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star Gazer: A Novel-not to mention the books of Patrick O'Brian-or is there room for Druett to sell well, too? With several whaling books to her name, she may have carved out a solid niche for herself. The book has been chosen as a Booksense pick for May. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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