Monday, October 21, 2013

The Whiteness of the Whale by David Poyer

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Print Length: 333 pages
ISBN: 1250020565
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (April 2, 2013)

Yet again, I watched another news story on the evening news that matched almost exactly the story David Poyer tells in The Whiteness of the Whale. This may be a novel, but it is based on factual scenarios, happening all too often on the oceans. As in real life, the novel tells a story of activists in pursuit of a Japanese whaling fleet they’ve observed killing whales and processing the whales for meat. That has long been illegal for all but scientific research purposes, yet the Japanese still hunt and kill whale in the Antarctic waters, hiding behind the banner of “research.”

The activists in pursuit are a motley crew. A primate behaviorist, a Hollywood movie star, a double-amputee Afghanistan war veteran, and others, each adding their own storyline and colorful personality as they sail together on the Black Anemone.  

They are not the only ones in pursuit. After an altercation with the Japanese whaling fleet, described with unnerving detail that makes the suffering of the whales uncomfortably memorable, the Black Anemone picks up a castaway. More, they pick up a tail. At this point, the story takes on echoes of Moby Dick, as a whale turns on the boat and goes out of its way to destroy the ship and the crew.

Poyer writes from a base of experience. He has a 30-year sea career on which to base his many sea novels. That kind of first-hand knowledge adds all kinds of subtle layers of nuance that bring scene after scene alive, some terrifyingly so. There are sections of the book that, when read, leave what feels like an uncanny splash of seawater on the reader’s face.

The activists don’t always come off as heroes. They appear human. Characters show their weaknesses as well as their heroic moments. The whale recognizes none, in dogged pursuit, seemingly enraged by the slaughter those very activists tried to prevent.

Poyer’s strongest characterizations are, in fact, the whale and the primate behaviorist, Dr. Sara Pollard. It’s not often one reads such accurate and effective cross-gender writing, but Poyer captures her female voice precisely.

I enjoyed the book enough to want to know more, and asked the author to do an author interview in the Summer/Fall 2013 Issue of TheSmoking Poet. My hope is that such novels take on a life outside of the fiction world and enter into the movement to save whales from the kind of barbarous scenes of slaughter Poyer describes and evening news show all too often.

David Poyer’s naval career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific.  His thirty-plus books, including twenty sea novels, have been translated into Italian, Dutch, Japanese, and other languages. He’s also written sailing, diving, and nautical history articles for Chesapeake Bay, Southern Boating, Shipmate, Tidewater Virginian, and other periodicals. His work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.  He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his wife and daughter, with whom he explores the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast in their sloop, Water Spirit.