To the Discussion Leader
The hunting of whales has been a part of American history since the Pilgrims came to the shores of Cape Cod. For years the ever-increasing demand for whale oil to make candles, soap, fuel lamps, and lubricate machinery caused the slaughtering of whales to be profitable. What would it have been like to be fourteen years old sailing on a whaling ship?
Newbery honor winner Jim Murphy spins the story of teenager Brian Doyle who runs away from an abusive father and signs on as a crew member on the whaling ship Florence in 1874. The Journal of Brian Doyle: A Greenhorn on an Alaskan Whaling Ship offers readers Brian's view of the men, the living conditions, the life-threatening hazards, and the gritty details of sailing on a whaling ship and killing and harvesting the huge creatures.
Brian's seagoing adventure is "a cracking good tale," but so is Brian's inner voyage toward understanding, self-confidence, and self-worth.
"We are anchored, but the ship still rolls and bobs in a way that sets my stomach in motion...But I do not care. I am away from him and when we leave San Francisco town tomorrow a.m. he won't be able to get at me." It is 1874, and these are the words of fourteen-year-old Brian Doyle who has run away from his abusive father and joined the crew of a whaling ship, the Florence. As a greenhorn, or "greenie," Brian must deal with exhausting chores, seasickness, and a rough and mostly unsympathetic crew. As the ship heads southward, there are daily drills of lowering the whaling boats in preparation for a real whale hunt.
When the first whale is killed, the ship turns into a factory, stripping the whale of its blubber and bone. Brian is forced to "bate the case" — strip and crawl inside the whale's head to harvest the oil. After several more whales are caught, Brian begins to have second thoughts about the whole endeavor. It's a dangerous business: the cabin boy is killed when a whale smashes the boat, and another man dies from a fall from the rigging. And Brian feels uneasy about killing whales after observing the fear in one whale's eyes as it swims past the ship.
Problems plague the Florence. When the winds stop blowing, the ship is becalmed and must be towed by a rival boat, the steam ship, Thomas John. A much-anticipated shore leave in Hawaii is cancelled and several crew members desert the ship and cannot be found. The ship begins to leak, and worst of all, no whales are sighted. Brian writes, "[I] had signed on so I could find that calm feeling inside, but here I am on a troubled ship, with a grumbling crew and a captain who can't find whales."
The Florence sails north to Alaska, and it's clear that Captain Blaine does not know what he is doing. Soon, icebergs appear, and before long, the ship is blocked in. Despite attempts by the crew to blast the ice with dynamite, the ship becomes frozen in an ice flow, "like a fly stuck on a giant piece of flypaper." The decision is made to abandon the Florence, and the crew begins pulling the smaller whale boats over the ice. Progress is slow, and the men face illness, frostbite, hunger, and wind that destroys one of the boats. Captain Blaine decides to return to the ship, while Brian and eight others continue on their search for land.
After finding a place to camp, Brian heads out to find help and ends up being rescued by an English speaking Norwegian outside of the whaling station at Camp Lisburne near the Arctic circle. After a day of rest, Brian boards the steamer General Grant whose captain sails off to rescue the rest of the Florence's crew. After much thought, Brian decides to go home to San Francisco town rather than continue serving on a whaling ship. He ends his journal, "Home. When I fled it I tried to banish it from my head — I guess to make my escape easier on myself. But it would not let me off that easily. I must say I'm very happy it didn't."
Thinking About the Book
- Why does Brian leave home? What makes Brian's father so angry and sad?
- How does Brian differ from his brother Sean Michael?
- On board the Florence, Brian is called Wolf. Explain how he earns the nickname.
- Why is this particular whale-hunting voyage so important to Captain Blaine?
- A great rivalry exists between the crew of the Florence and that of the Thomas John even though both are owned by the same company? What is the reason for this competition?
- What do you think about the crew member named Nathaniel? Why is he ostracized by many of the other men? How does Brian feel about Nathaniel?
- Why was whaling such an important industry in 1874?
- Explain why Ethan resents Brian. Why does he also resent Nathaniel?
- Brian finally has enough of Ethan. Brian beats him and blood gushes from Ethan's nose. What keeps Brian from being proud of his physical victory over Ethan?
- By the end of the journal, how has Brian's attitude towards his father changed?
- Brian has to learn a lot of new words and terms as a greenhorn on the Florence. Have each member of your discussion group select one of the following and explain what it means:
* boxing the compass
* trick at the wheel
* donkey's breakfast
- Find out more about the different kinds of whales there are. Share your findings with your classmates.
- Find out what the following whaling terms mean.
* Nantucket sleigh ride
* "thar she blows"
* crow's nest
- In his July 7 entry, Brian relates Watty's tale of the loss of 32 ships in the Arctic ice in 1871. Brian suspects that Watty is "just yarning us." What does that mean? Compare Watty's story with an actual account of this historic incident. What interesting information do you discover about this event?
- According to the Historical Note at the end of Brian's diary, the International Whaling Commission, since 1982, has officially banned whaling. Now the focus is on preserving whales. Go to the Save the Whales website and find out what you can do to preserve and protect whales.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.