Monday Book Review – Nathaniel Philbrick Does it Again!

Philbrick is on top of his game with Sea of Glory.

I finished a great book a few weeks ago, and I just haven’t had time to post my review until now.  The book? Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition by Nathaniel Philbrick.  If you’re a frequent visitor to this blog (Hi, mom), you’ll know that I loved Philbrick’s book, In the Heart of the Sea.  He’s great at spinning a maritime tale and making it relatable to the non-seafaring types like me.  I wouldn’t know a yardarm from an octopus’s leg, but I found myself totally immersed in these two books.  There is no one better at taking nonfiction and making it read like a fast paced novel than Philbrick.

His real talent is vividly painting multi-dimensional characters that compel you to read until your eyes cross with anticipation. Sea of Glory is full of real life sailors that you pull for and hate.  But Philbrick brilliantly makes this a book about two men.  One motivated by blinding ambition, Charles Wilkes  and another motivated by a sense of adventure and duty, William Reynolds.

The U.S. Exploring Expedition was a massive undertaking by a young country in 1838 to map the entire Pacific Ocean.  It required six sailing vessels and hundreds of men and would capture the imagination of the entire nation.  Uncharted islands would be explored.  The Antarctic Continent would be discovered and countless specimens would be brought back and serve as the building blocks for the Smithsonian Institution.  But the hardship of the expedition drove its commander, Charles Wilkes, to unspeakable acts of cruelty towards his own men and the peoples of one island nation in particular (although most would see it as a justifiable act).  At the conclusion of the expedition in 1842, instead of returning a hero to the country (something he desperately longed for), Wilkes was brought up on charges and court marshaled.  William Reynolds, a fan of Wilkes at the outset of the voyage, would spend much of his life after the voyage trying to make sure that Wilkes paid for his deplorable behavior during the expedition.

Philbrick is a supreme storyteller, and I can’t recommend this book enough.  If you want to learn about probably the most important event in US history that you’ve most likely never heard about, this is a fantastic way to soak it and enjoy an excellent writing in the process.

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