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A Whale Hunt
Synopses & Reviews
A gloriously idiosyncratic fusion of travelogue, ecology, history, moral controversy, and high-seas adventure from the acclaimed author of The Meadowlands.
In the fall of 1997, Robert Sullivan arrived in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the most northwestern tip of America, home to the Makah, a Native American tribe. For centuries the hunting of the whale was what defined the tribe, but when commercial whaling drove the gray whale to near extinction in the 1920s, the Makah voluntarily discontinued their tradition and hung up their harpoons. In 1994, after the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, the Makah decided to hunt again. Faced with the problems endemic to other reservations, including poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism, many Makah believed that a traditional whale hunt would inject their community with a new sense of pride and purpose. The problem was that all the old whalers were dead — no one knew how to go about hunting a whale.
During a sojourn that lasts longer than anyone could have predicted, Robert Sullivan chronicles the two years he spends in Neah Bay as the Makah prepare for and stage the first hunt. With a damp, plywood fisherman's shanty for lodging, Sullivan roams the spectacular surrounding wilderness, learns about ancient Northwest whaling traditions and the history of the Makah, follows the migratory path of the gray whale down the West Coast, and gets to know the crew and their beleaguered captain, Wayne Johnson. Combatting tribal infighting and inexperience, the crew must also face the passionate, furious animal rights activists and swarming reporters who besiege the once sleepy Neah Bay. Before the ragtag group of hunters even pursues a whale, there are clashes, disappointments, and defeats, small triumphs and unexpected heroes — all made vivid by Sullivan's keen eye for irony and his captivating, lyrical prose.
Another legendary whale hunt becomes the fascinating and funny subtext to this tale as Sullivan notices eerie parallels — and oppositions — between the Makah's quest and the whaling classic Moby-Dick. A book of many layers and revelations, A Whale Hunt is the story of the demise and attempted resurrection of a Native American nation, and of the individuals on the reservation whose lives are forever changed.
"Captivating... the true value of [Sullivan's] work stems from the depth and quality of his observational powers." The Oregonian
"A resounding work of environmental and ethnographic reportage." Kirkus Reviews
"A Whale Hunt is a good book about the difficulties of keeping a cultural and tribal tradition alive in the present day. Mr. Sullivan's account is sensitive, moving, and sad." Larry McMurtry
"Here is a fascinating account of the controversial Makah tribe whale hunt by an outside observer. Mr. Sullivan gives a perceptive, even-handed description of the overwhelming obstacles the Makah tribal whale hunters faced — nasty racism, limited finances (they don't have casinos), cadres of wealthy animal rights protestors, and the usual tribe bickering. All this only makes the Makah whale hunting success a greater triumph." Leslie Marmon Silko
"A rich story, at turns ironic and bemusing, sad and funny." USA Today
Book News Annotation:
New York-based freelance writer Sullivan (Meadowlands) chronicles two years he spent at the center of a controversy that pitted two cherished ideals against each other—protecting whales and preserving ancestral practice. The Makah, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, resumed hunting the gray whale in the traditional manner when it was taken off the endangered species list in 1995; animal rights advocates arrived to protest. There is no index.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The author relates his time spent with the Makah, a Native American tribe with a centuries-old tradition of hunting whales off the Olympic Peninsula, and how it regained its rights to hunt the gray whale after it was taken off the endangered species list.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 279-283).
About the Author
Robert Sullivan, a contributing editor at Vogue, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review. He is the author of The Meadowlands, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He recently moved from Portland, Oregon, to Brooklyn, New York.
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