Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
After reading the opening to this book, in which the author shares the story of his father’s psychological scars as a result of surviving a German U-boat attack in 1941, I was struck by the similarity of my father-in-law’s reticence to talk about what he experienced when he helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. It also compelled me to delve deeper into Off the Deep End to learn more about a subject that is sometimes alluded to, but rarely discussed in detail in the many maritime histories I have read. Equally astonishing is the fact that while non-fiction has skirted the subject, it has long been a central theme in literary works such as The Odyssey, Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Caine Mutiny.
Within the twenty-three chapters of this book, Compton examines madness and mental illness both in the past and the present. He explores a plethora of phenomena – seasickness, mirages and optical illusions, and hearing voices – that on the surface don’t seem to fall under this umbrella, but when explored in greater depth actually do. And he accomplishes this using everyday language that any reader will understand, rather than relying on scientific or medical jargon. Through first-person accounts or contemporary examples he showcases mood swings, stress, depression, obsessive behavior, calenture (feverish delirium and a desire to throw oneself into the sea), scurvy, psychoneurosis, and insanity. External factors – warfare, climate, syphilis, shipwreck, mutiny, piracy, and cannibalism – are also explored. Compton looks at both the effects on the sufferers and the impact on the crews. Some historical examples focus on events aboard HMS Beagle (before and during Charles Darwin’s voyage) and the whaleship Essex, as well as such individuals as Christopher Columbus, Captain Bligh, and Fletcher Christian. The book also examines how changes in ship technology and the stress of round-the-world sailing and solo voyages affect sailors.
Rather than end on a dismal note, Compton elects to show how the sea and sailing can also help to heal a person’s mind and body. He begins with the Reverend John Ashley, whose ministry to fishermen led to the establishment of missions that help sailors around the world, and progresses to such life-changing seafaring programs as Outward Bound and Turn to Starboard. One particularly heartwarming story that he shares resulted from a twelve-day voyage that helped to alter the millennium-long divide between two boys, one Israeli and the other Palestinian.
Some interesting artwork appears under the chapter titles. The endnotes provide additional information that doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative, as well as full bibliographic citations. Although no list of the organizations mentioned is included, this information can be found by hunting through the endnotes. Space was reserved for an index, which was not included in the e-galley I read.
Readers might wonder whether this is the best book to read in only a few sittings, but it never brought me down or left me feeling depressed. Instead, I experienced a sense of wonder and amazement that this topic has been ignored in other maritime books. I also had a few “aha” moments (example: Compton’s explanation of the Flying Dutchman). I highly recommend Off the Deep End, as it is not only a fascinating book but is also one that helps “to stimulate discussion of these issues and encourages a broader acceptance of the lows as well as the highs of life at sea,” which was Compton’s goal in writing this book. (261)
Review Copyrighted ©2017 Cindy Vallar
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