In 2010, Coffeetown Press released a work of historical fiction by Anne E. Beidler based on the mystery of the Nantucket ship Essex titled, Eating Owen: The Imagined True Story of Four Coffins from Nantucket: Abigail, Nancy, Zimri, and Owen ($15.95; 182 pages, 6×9 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-022-7). The Hollywood blockbuster In the Heart of the Sea tells another version of the same historical events. The eBook of Eating Owen is currently being offered exclusively on Amazon at a special price of $2.99.
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Eating Owen was the first novel of Anne E. Beidler, who lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband Peter. She has a doctorate in educational research and is a lifetime history buff. She is also the author of a biographical work: The Addiction of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Eating Owen is a tale of mystery. What really happened to Owen Coffin, the cabin boy on the Nantucket whaling ship Essex? In the autumn of 1819, the unthinkable happened. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean a whale rammed into the Essex, sinking it within minutes (the event that helped inspire Melville’s Moby Dick). The crew had no refuge except to jump into the three small and very flimsy wooden boats they carried on board to help them chase the whales. During the next three months, bobbing around aimlessly on the open ocean, the men suffered terribly. They ran out of food to eat, and some of them died. And some of them ate each other. Including Owen. The few survivors returned to Nantucket with the story that Owen had been fairly elected to be executed—before he was eaten. But no one knows for sure what happened. Or do we? Eating Owen is the story of Owen Coffin and his family before the Essex tragedy. It is a story about a family, a story about surviving and not surviving. A story about a whale’s revenge.
Says the author, “My husband’s ancestors are from Nantucket, so he is sort of—after all this time—related to the Coffin family from there. We have been to Nantucket many times. The sinking of the Essex inspired Melville, and the story certainly captured my imagination, so I’m not surprised that it has now inspired a hit movie, In the Heart of the Sea. How much of the story is true? The wreck, of course, is true. And the men in the lifeboats trying to survive on the ocean. One lifeboat was lost, and the other two were rescued, but many of the occupants were lost and/or eaten. Nobody living really knows what happened on Owen’s lifeboat. The survivors, probably to avoid blame or trouble (did they have lawsuits back then?), told a party line about drawing straws. My version is made up, but seems more realistic to me.”
Here are Anne Beidler’s thoughts on the movie, In the Heart of the Sea:
In the Heart of the Sea certainly delivers the way a Hollywood blockbuster should: good camera work, lots of powerful sea, lots of ropes and whales and dirty men. An audience anticipating a rip-roaring adventure tale is bound to appreciate it. Rather than rating the movie according to my enjoyment or its overall merits, I prefer to concentrate on the historical perspective, which is always what fascinates me most—the focus the screenwriter chose to take and the portrayal of the characters: who is featured, who is not.
In the movie Thomas Nickerson is the narrator, telling the Essex story fifty years later to young Herman Melville, who used parts of it in Moby Dick later on. Thomas Nickerson was the cabin boy on the Essex, about fifteen, and the youngest person involved. In real life he wrote his story fifty years later and left out a lot. In the movie he is sort of the main character.
The movie stresses the conflict between Captain George Pollard of the Essex and his first mate, Owen Chase. By the end, they—as well as the narrator, old man Nickerson—have become wiser men. Very nice.
Whales generally did not sink boats—it was very unusual—but no one disputes that a whale sunk the Essex. However, nobody really knows what happened during the three months the survivors floated aimlessly in the middle of the Pacific in three flimsy little boats with few provisions.
The first mate, Chase, later wrote a long narrative of the incident, admitting to some cannibalism on his little boat, but in general making himself look pretty good. The captain, Pollard, also eventually wrote his own version, which concluded with a sad account of his life after the sinking of the Essex.
Taking all three of these accounts into consideration (including that of Nickerson), it is impossible to be at all sure who was eaten in the ‘life’ boats, how the victim was chosen, and who shot Owen.
There would have been many reasons to conceal the information about their cannibal behavior as they tried to avoid the nearby ‘cannibal’ islands. Chase and Pollard wanted to be hired again, for one thing, and needed the ship owners to trust them. Then, of course, since many Nantucket families were related (particularly, in this story, the Pollard and Coffin families), nobody wanted to admit eating their relatives.
In the movie, Owen Coffin has had a name change. (He is a very, very minor character called Henry Coffin.) For those who have not seen the movie, I do not wish to give away the twist. I would say that the movie tries to put a good light on the end of the tragedy of the Essex, but I do not. Though, of course, none of us knows.
My story is more about the whole Coffin family, especially certain ones, including Owen, and the effect of the whale’s revenge (yes, the whale is a character) on the family. It includes the whaling culture on the island, the prevalence of opiate addiction, and the relationship to the whales.