Picks and Pans Review: The Jonah Man

updated 07/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1984 01:00AM

by Henry Carlisle

George Pollard grew up on a farm on Nantucket in the early 1800s. As a little boy he yearned to go to sea, to hunt whales as did the important and wealthy men of the community. By his late 20s he had command of his own vessel and went chasing whales in the Pacific. Then disaster struck. His ship was rammed by a bull whale and sunk. This powerful novel is based on a true story, and Carlisle (a San Francisco author of several novels) has managed to surround Pollard with a convincing cast of characters: the hero's father, who is afraid of the sea; his mother, who is given to forecasting the most dire events imaginable; Pollard's loving wife, Mary, who is an embodiment of all the feminine virtues of that period. The ending, in which Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a speech the retired captain finds inspiring, is beautifully done. In an epilogue, Herman Melville is quoted (from real life): "...I—sometime about 1850-3—saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody—to me the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming even humble—that I ever encountered." Two minor defects mar this fascinating book (caused perhaps by the author's desire to please a contemporary audience): The novel is presented as a first-person journal, as if written by Pollard himself, though no 19th-century person ever wrote sentences as short and abrupt as these; and no self-respecting 19th-century male would ever—in public memoirs—include a scene describing his seduction by his mother's sister. (Knopf, $13.95)

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