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Book Review: Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (5/5)

27 Apr

The story of how I got this book makes me laugh. A friend and I were going to the Ann Arbor Book Festival Book Crawl and decided to meet up for dinner before. She’s a librarian who was planning a community reading and volunteer experience. She was going to use the book Moby-Duck to rally the community around plastic pollution, climate change, and globalization concerns. She told me about the programs she had planned as we enjoyed our Mexican food. We got to the second stop on the Book Crawl and were shocked when Donovan Hohn was one of the speakers! We got to hear him talk about his experiences in the book and my friend told him about her programming. I’ve had it on my shelves for five years. I have a personal rule of not taking signed books out of my house and quarantine seems like the perfect time to keep my books at home and read them.

Cover Image via Goodreads

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn

Summary from Goodreads:

When the writer Donovan Hohn heard of the mysterious loss of thousands of bath toys at sea, he figured he would interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, and read up on Arctic science and geography. But questions can be like ocean currents: wade in too far, and they carry you away. Hohn’s accidental odyssey pulls him into the secretive world of shipping conglomerates, the daring work of Arctic researchers, the lunatic risks of maverick sailors, and the shadowy world of Chinese toy factories.

Moby-Duck is a journey into the heart of the sea and an adventure through science, myth, the global economy, and some of the worst weather imaginable. With each new discovery, Hohn learns of another loose thread, and with each successive chase, he comes closer to understanding where his castaway quarry comes from and where it goes. In the grand tradition of Tony Horwitz and David Quammen, Moby-Duck is a compulsively readable narrative of whimsy and curiosity.

I haven’t read a non-fiction book I enjoyed this much on a long time. Hohn’s tone is comical and the way he captures people and their mannerisms was wonderful. I loved picturing the avid beachcombers and blind oceanographer he met. He’s also very gifted at describing the science behind his writing in a way that was easy to understand. There was a map in the front of the book that I found most helpful. This is a topic I’m interested in, too, so I was all for this book and this topic.

Many times, non-fiction doesn’t focus on people and characterization much, but Hohn did a great job of it. I could picture Ebbesmeyer walking along the Alaskan coast and the mopy teenager on vacation with his parents. I’m honestly surprised Hohn hasn’t published any fiction. He has a new book coming out in June, The Inner Coast, which is also non-fiction and covers many similar topics.

Chris Pallister may have been the most interesting person in the book. He was very driven to get the coast cleaned up and saw it as a quest he needed to complete no matter the barriers. The mix with his personal life that Hohn provided was really interesting because we can see the reasons behind his drive to clean up Gore Point and I loved how by combining a personal history with a professional goal, Hohn drew a very real and full person.

I’ve tried to minimize my plastic impact on the planet so I related well to the several sections on garbage in the oceans. The beachcombers seemed to see it as treasure while those studying the convergence zones saw it as a major issue to be solved. I thought it was interesting when Hohn encountered the Waterkeeper Alliance who showed him how ineffective beach cleanups are when we look at the larger issues facing our oceans. That was eye-opening for me as well.

Donovan Hohn reading from Moby-Duck at Seva in Ann Arbor, MI.

There wasn’t a point of this book that I enjoyed most and not a part that I didn’t enjoy. I sped through it with equal rapture and attention. Separating the book into different ‘chases’ that Hohn made kept the pace up for me and I liked seeing the different places he would go to chase down answers to a single question. It reminded me a bit of The Travels of a T-Shirt by Pietra Rivoli in that sense but I enjoyed the writing in this one much more.

Our oceans are so big that small damages to them don’t seem like a big deal. Throwing one plastic wrapper over the side of a boat isn’t going to end the world. But every person thinking that and companies taking advantage of the sea end up making a large impact. If it was just one crate of bath toys, it would be fine. It’s when oil tankers and cell phone crates and garbage add to the damage that it starts to become lasting damage that we can’t overlook. Hohn makes great points about how we’ve affected our oceans and how there’s no single solution. The oceans are so deep and vast that we still don’t understand them or how we’ve damaged them. It will take years of research for us to know.

Writer’s Takeaway: Hohn’s ability to take a non-fiction topic and make me as engrossed as I normally am in a YA Fantasy novel was amazing. The way he described the people he met was a huge contributing factor. He described personality ticks, facial expressions, and life events that brought the people off the page and made them as real as my neighbors. It helped make the story seem more grounded and helped me connect with it more deeply.

I adored this book and I really recommend it. I’m sad it took me so long to read. Five out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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