A Hump like a Snow-hill

Moby Dick has long been one of my favorite books. It’s part adventure story, part whaling encyclopedia, and it’s just good prose, dramatic, poetic stuff. It’s something of a precursor to things we see today like the fascinating and entertaining show The Deadliest Catch, which details the mechanics and the drama of fishing for crab on the Bering sea. If you like the latter, it may be a misstep to dismiss the former.

When Lennie was still in utero and we were trying to think of ways to let her hear my voice, I thought of reading Moby Dick to her. It doesn’t matter what words you’re saying, but matters only that the child can hear you. Also, though it’s one of my favorite books, it’s one that M never read and has never had any interest in reading. Our effort fizzled thanks to a lack of enthusiasm on her part (as I recall it; it’s possible the book just put her to sleep).

This past Christmas, I got a radically condensed, cartoon version of the book (not to be confused with the comic book version I got for my birthday), the idea being that it was something I might share with Lennie. To be honest, the book isn’t that great. The drawings are pretty crude, and though the book hits the high points of the plot, it’s just not the best sort of thing to read with a kid because of the way it’s laid out. But a few weeks ago, Lennie developed on her own a very keen interest in having it read to her. Probably a dozen times or so now, we’ve glossed it at bedtime. I don’t bother reading the words so much as pointing to pictures and telling Lennie the names of the people and explaining that the whale and Ahab are grumpy. Now she tells me these things. She can identify on her own the characters Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and Queequeg (volunteering the names of the former two). And of course, she knows the white whale’s name and that the sailors wield harpoons on their hunt for him. She can also tell the difference between the pictured right (or baleen) whale, and she’s close to being able to volunteer that the right whale has no teeth but has baleen instead. She’s very interested in the ouchies that appear on Moby Dick’s flank (bright red ribbons of blood trailing behind), and she understands that Ahab (who she knows has a peg-leg) is grumpy because Moby Dick bit his leg off.

And finally, as of this weekend, when we get to the page on which Moby Dick is first sighted from the crow’s nest, she’ll say in a theatrical voice that I may be responsible for having helped her develop for the purpose, “Thar she blows! A hump like a snow-hill!”

M refuses still to read even the abridged book with Lennie, and I consider it my duty to raise a little fanatic to exact revenge, which is, after all, one of the book’s core themes.

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