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White as the Waves: A Novel of Moby Dick, Alison Baird, Tuckamore Books, 1999, 277 pp.

As the subtitle of this book indicates, White as the Waves is a retelling of Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. Baird tells the story from the point of view of the whale, named White-as-the-Waves by the other cachalot (sperm whales) and often just known as Whitewave. It’s a compelling story, crammed to bursting with fascinating detail about whales and their way of life, and it dovetails neatly with Melville’s famous work.

The talking animal story is a common one, a genre that spans the typical children’s story all the way up to Adams’ Watership Down. A project like this is tricky; it’s common but not always done well, due to anthropomorphism among other perils. Baird writes carefully about her underwater characters, ascribing certain qualities to them but always making sure that we understand they are whales (or dolphins) first and foremost. Anthropomorphism in particular makes it difficult to sort out what is fact and what is fiction in talking animal stories. I’m reminded of Grove’s Consider Her Ways. That book was about ants, and in my review, I noted that it was hard to know what I was learning about real ants and what I was learning about Grove’s fictional ants. Baird’s book is much easier to figure out. It also helps that she includes a bibliography at the end.

The first third of White as the Waves might be the most interesting. Whitewave grows up, becomes a curious young whale, learns about cachalot culture, makes friends, and eventually leaves the matriarchal pod. This section probably represents the most cetacean research on Baird’s part; there are only hints of what’s to come in the Moby Dick-related part of the story, so the bulk of the narrative is about whales and their idyllic lives. I learned a great deal about the diversity of marine life, and not just cachalot. After leaving the pod to enjoy bachelor life, Whitewave comes back later to find that his childhood friend Moontail now already has her own daughter. After Whitewave fights off a rival, Whitewave and Moontail mate. About 100 pages into the book, we read the first up-close account of whaling: Moontail is killed, despite Whitewave’s efforts. In his fury, Whitewave battles a giant squid. Thus ends Part One of the book.

Part Two of White as the Waves is almost too distressing to read. I couldn’t read the book in one sitting; I had to take breaks just to calm the sick feeling in my stomach. Whaling is described in graphic detail, so many of the goriest aspects are here in all their profusion. But the sickest part of the whole story is senselessness of the slaughter, and wholesale nature of the whale hunt. Whitewave finds that certain species of whales no longer exist in the Atlantic, and later on, when he returns to his home in the Pacific, he discovers that the young cachalot have no older whales to help them get by in life. Whole aspects of cachalot tradition have been lost, in one of the more heart-breaking sequences in the book.

The book wraps up in close parallel to the events of Moby Dick. And despite all the fury and despair of the whale hunt and its effect on whales, Whitewave has a vision of the future, a future that will follow the whale hunt. It’s a vision of today, when humans no longer hunt whales to extinction. It’s a powerful image of environmental harmony, and one that will hopefully prevail fully in our time.

One aspect of the book that lingers in memory is the sense of confusion that the whales have over human motives. Why would any member of the natural order hunt another member to extinction? Some of the cachalot discuss whether humans are in fact part of the natural order at all. Whitewave himself goes through phases of uncertainty: is it proper or right for him to kill other beings if those beings are hunting his kind so cruelly? Whitewave’s moral qualms and bursts of rage throughout the book make the inevitability of the Moby Dick ending much more poignant.

Baird wraps up the book with a fascinating afterword, talking about the project, other whales like Whitewave on the historical record, and Melville. It’s worth quoting from at length. She talks about her first reading of Moby Dick:

Unlike many of my generation, I actually read Moby Dick voluntarily, at the tender age of thirteen. From my earliest childhood I had been fascinated by whales, and I need hardly say that my sympathies were entirely with the title character. I was indignant at his human-inflicted sufferings, revolted by Ahab’s vengeful quest, and thoroughly delighted by the story’s unexpected outcome. In later years I would come to a more mature understanding of the novel, to appreciate its complex structure, its moments of wry wit, its almost Shakespearean monologues, and even to comprehend the character of Captain Ahab a little better. But my curious, inside-out first reading of the novel would always stay with me. (273-274)

Baird goes on to discuss the changing roles of humanity and nature:

Though my story closely follows the events of Moby Dick it is, I think, much more a reflection of our present age. In Melville’s day it was still possible to write of a conflict in which Man stood helpless against the vast, terrifying, enigmatic power of Nature. In this era of ozone holes and devastated rainforests and ravaged fish stocks -- an era in which some whale species still have not fully recovered from the wholesale slaughter of previous centuries -- humanity can no longer comfortably cast itself as the victim. We have ourselves become the vast and implacable force before which nothing can stand. And were Herman Melville living in our day, perhaps -- who can tell? -- he might have chosen to write his great epic from a rather different point of view.... (275-276)

She also lists acknowledgements; quite a few talented and knowledgeable people helped her with this project. She gives a bibliography as part of the acknowledgements, and this list of books is the place to start for anyone who wants to know more about whales.

White as the Waves is a fascinating book, and well worth reading. It’s the type of project that could have gone very wrong, but Baird balances all aspects of the book with aplomb. Highly recommended.

Last modified: March 24, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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