In Away Off Shore, Nathaniel Philbrick explores the history of Nantucket Island, from the first boat of British people leaving the restrictions of the mainland to the final death throes of the whaling industry.
This book could probably be called a microhistory because it is the history of one small island. I had a feeling when reading it that it might be one of Philbrick’s earlier books, and sure enough it was written in 1994, well before his other books. It was apparently reprinted on the shirttails of his more recent, very successful histories.
Philbrick explains how different Nantucket was from mainland New England even from its beginnings. It was occupied by Wampanoag Indians when the Pilgrims arrived to find the rest of the coast almost empty of Native Americans. These people were first treated well by the new settlers, who even purchased their land from one of the two groups (the wrong one, however), but this relationship slowly changed. The Indians were eventually enslaved to some of the other islanders by incurring debts they could not pay, for which an exorbitant amount of work was demanded in return. The islanders’ isolation from the mainland, their strong Quaker roots, and their eventual success in the whaling industry as the first men to go after sperm whales singled them out from other New Englanders.
Philbrick relates the history of the island largely by focusing on a few colorful individuals and families, and principally on two antagonistic factions. Although that strategy makes the book interesting, I’m not sure it provides a true reflection of the island through time.
I felt that the book makes assumptions about the readers’ knowledge of Nantucket, as if it was written for the inhabitants or at least those who are frequent visitors. He often makes comments like “the house was located where the post office is now.”
This last comment is a minor criticism, but it relates to a more major one, which is the lack of good maps and pictures. The book has two reproductions of old maps, but they are so small and fuzzy as to be unreadable. I am a map person, so when Philbrick is describing where things are, I want to see them on the map. That was almost always impossible. In addition, most histories of this type contain reproductions of paintings or old photographs so that we can see what some of the people or the old town looked like, but this book has none. Indeed, Philbrick actually compares photographs of two men, but the photos do not appear in the book. It would have been nice if the book contained pictures of some of the people and places.
Philbrick is known as an expert on Nantucket, and the book certainly shows meticulous research. It is very interesting, but also frustrating at times.