When we could, say, be squirrel-watching or cow-watching, why are we especially drawn to the whale?
During the twice-a-year migration season, boatloads of schoolchildren and families leave the coasts and head out into the deep for whale watching. Why is that? When we could, say, be squirrel-watching or cow-watching, why are we especially drawn to visit the whale? The answer seems to be that these leviathans evoke in us special and rare feelings: awe and wonder and respect. That is why, incidentally, ocean encounters with these creatures are always more satisfying than viewing them as penned pets and entertainment at marine amusement parks.
Genuine encounters with grandeur inspire us to think more grandly. Many of us, habitually, measure out our lives in coffee spoons, but a visit to the Grand Canyon may awe us and make us aware of our self-imposed smallness, leading us to aspire to much greater things. So, too, in the world of children’s books. Every once in awhile, one encounters a leviathan that shows what can be done and leads one to measure with different measures; then the thousands of juvenile offerings published every year seem like so many minnows pooling in the shallows and happy with their lot. In that regard, this book reviewer is immensely grateful to have had the chance to encounter once again Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Twenty-five years ago, I finished the 600 or so pages of Melville’s loose and baggy novel, a kind of scrapbook of a great story mixed with all kinds of technical information about whales and whaling as well as abundant digressions; as Philip Roth said in The Great American Novel, Melville’s book is full of hundreds of pages of “blubber.” The history of this book’s reception is also curious: published in 1851, it met with unfavorable reviews and drifted into obscurity; near the turn of the last century, it was briefly revived as a children’s book because of its mixture of story and marine science; now Moby-Dick is generally regarded as a classic American masterpiece. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend an abridgement of any kind, but I wish to heartily praise this new Candlewick edition of Moby-Dick for doing the unusual: improving upon the original.
In Jan Needle’s 200-page edition, Melville’s words are here and we once again encounter Ishmael (our storyteller), Queequeg (his native companion), Captain Ahab (and his monomaniacal obsession to kill the white whale that took his leg), and the entire crew of the doomed Pequod. Missing is very little that will be missed. And where Needle has made excisions, he moves between sections of Melville’s text in a companionable way with intelligent and italicized commentary that leads us along and provides background. This editing is brilliant.
Even the design of this book is impressive, right down to its historical typeface and maps of the world’s whaling grounds. Patrick Benson’s illustrations are, for the most part, just right. His black-and-white’s are simulated woodcuts that approach the genius of Barry Moser. His color pictures, however, are uneven: sometimes fine but sometimes sketchy and amateurish in the manner of old Grosset-and-Dunlop children’s books.
As it happens, during my week of reading this book, I saw on television the film “Whale Rider,” one of my favorites. Nothing made clearer to me, by way of accidental comparison, the dark nature of Moby-Dick: the horror of cutting and stripping a whale’s skin, the diabolical mission of Ahab, the forebodings and portents of disaster–in short, what Melville called “the power of blackness.” In that sense, Moby-Dick is a book for adolescents and not for children, in the same way J.K. Rowling’s describes the “darkening” of Harry Potter books as the series and its readers grow older, in the same way Phillip Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy presents young adults with a stygian blackness.
“Whale Rider,” on the other hand, is a children’s movie and book set in New Zealand’s sunshine. It is a contemporary story of a young girl who continues the traditions of her Maori culture after she confronts her grandfather, Koro, who believes the next tribal leader must be a boy, as it has always been. Secretly, Pai learns what the boys are taught. Eventually, Pai magically demonstrates she is the chosen one by leading a pod of beached whales back to sea by riding on the back of one of them, just as their ancient ancestor Paikea did. It is a wonderful story of a girl, at once traditional and affirmative.
As these stories remind us, whales are “wonder-full.” Huge and evocative, they inspire in us much greater dreams and the ambition to do grand things we may have otherwise postponed in our smaller thinking. It’s time to see the whales. After an acquaintance with these stories, you may wish to search the internet to identify whale-watching cruises (see below). On my part, I will now do what I have long planned to do and travel to the estuaries and whale-calving grounds of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. New Zealand is next on my horizon.
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2006). Let me add a note about Whale Watching: Give or take a month or two on either side, migrating whales (primarily gray whales) can been southbound in December and northbound in April; in between, they calve. While there are various ways to explore whales and whale watching on the internet, perhaps the place to begin is the Whale-Watching-Web which lists various volunteer and helpful organizations, as well as charters and cruises from coastal states in the U.S. and other countries abroad.
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