I have written about John McPhee before, but in looking back at my reading list, I came across this book of McPhee’s that I had just re-read. I enjoyed it immensely. McPhee’s interests are truly catholic, and he has written about everything from oranges to Scotland to geology, and he has profiled characters as diverse as Bill Bradley (in his college basketball playing days) and environmentalist David Brower. There is however a common thread that runs through all of his writings. McPhee always connects his stories to people. McPhee’s classic work The Pine Barrens examines not only the unique ecology of this remnant of the great eastern forests, but also the lives of the people who have chosen to live in this remote place.
In Looking for a Ship, McPhee profiles Andy Chase, a merchant mariner who is “looking for a ship,” as well as examining the state of the U.S. Merchant Marine at the end of the 1980s. He does this by joining Chase on the S.S. Stella Lykes, a carrier ship that takes on Chase as Second Mate. As in any McPhee book, we learn a lot about the workings of the ship, from the engine room to the bridge, and we get thoughtful and clearly drawn portraits of the crew from the captain on down. They are a fascinating bunch, if a bit idiosyncratic.
Looking for a Ship shows McPhee’s strengths in many areas. He is a nature writer without peer, his delight in the ocean and the smaller waterways is evident. McPhee also has an eye for both details and for the larger picture, and his descriptions of the Stella Lykes echo the issues in the larger Merchant Marine. McPhee also has a clear curiosity for how things work and how individuals do their jobs. He seemingly effortlessly conveys this enthusiasm to readers leaving them equally fascinated.
With appealing characters, writing that is both detailed and crisp, McPhee can be read and enjoyed by a broad audience. Looking for a Ship is a great starting point.
Check the WRL catalog for Looking for a Ship