NPR had its show on this book AFTER my sister finished her review (I think they knew we beat them to the punch), but I was slow to post (bad me).
Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (which came out earlier this month) is one of those books that promises a lot in its subtitle, “The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.” It delivers, eventually, but you have to wade (forgive the pun) through a slew of adventures (and misadventures) following the life cycle of this flotsam (loosely translated, stuff that falls off ships) and the cast of characters that he meets along the way.
The title, of course, is drawn from Herman Melville’s novel of 19th century whalers, but Hohn is seeking Floatees, plastic bathtub toy animals (specifically, ducks, beavers, frogs, and turtles lost from the container ship Ever Laurel on January 10, 1992). Instead of harpooning whales, he: cleans beaches with driftologists in Alaska; interviews various environmentalists with equally varied agendas; joins the crew of a ship sampling the Pacific Ocean’s mostly plastic “Garbage Patch”; attends a toy trade fair in Hong Kong; visits a toy factory in Dongguan, China; sails from Pusan, South Korea to Seattle as a passenger on a container ship in winter; and transits the Northwest Passage aboard two research vessels, working alongside (among others) a blind oceanographer.
Throughout the book, Hohn places his narrative within the context of his own life, past, as a child, and present, as a father. He considers the innocuousness of these humble toys, how they first entered our culture in the early 20th century (read: how will parents keep their child busy if they can’t afford paid help), how they became affordable for everyone after WWII (one word – Plastics), and how they became fixed in our mindset (at least, in part) as the result of an educational TV icon (Ernie of Sesame Street, singing about his favorite bathtub pal). Hohn gently rails against the plastics and shipping industries, toy manufacturers, politicians, and, well, all of us; he tries not to make anyone the “bad guy” but nobody comes out completely clean either. Your bath time experience will never be the same again.