Any parent who has put an exuberant toddler in the bathtub with a single rubber duck understands the possibility of the bedlam that can ensue. The subtitle of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them indicates Hohn’s desire to understand the possibilities when the bathtub is transformed into the sea and the single rubber duck is transformed into a shipping container full of bath toys. On top of that, bath time lasts the better part of two decades in this scenario.
Shipping containers lost in the ocean are far from uncommon. The greatest contributor to what is known as the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch may very well be Nike shoes, Air Jordans prominently among them, although anything that ships is liable to land in the ocean. The container that spawned this story was one of 12 to go overboard in a storm south of the Aleutian Islands near the International Date Line on Jan. 10, 1992. Legend has turned all the lost bath toys into yellow rubber ducks, but the polyethylene (plastic) creatures were divided equally among yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs. Of course, the smirking yellow duck proves to be the most intriguing for Hohn because of its status as a childhood icon thanks to Ernie of Sesame Street fame.
Moby-Duck is not the first book inspired by the incident. Eric Carle’s picture book Ten Little Rubber Ducks came out in 2005, about the time Hohn learned of the wayward bath toys. What especially caught Hohn’s attention was the rumor that someone had found one of the toys in Maine in 2003, 11 years after the toys had splashed into the Pacific Ocean. When Hohn embarks on his quest to determine if that could be possible, he does so with childlike curiosity and hope. What ensues is his struggle to maintain that innocent imagination when faced with realities such as a global economy, treacherous oceanic transportation, and plastic pollutants.
Questions borne of both curiosity and skepticism eventually lead Hohn to surrender his job as a teacher at a private Quaker school in Manhattan to pursue his search for answers. In a variety of vessels including a container ship and an icebreaker, Hohn makes trips to the Aleutians, Hawaii, Hong Kong and the Guangdong Province in China, and the Arctic Circle over three years. His chase for a yellow duck representing the comfort of youth quickly morphs into an adult romanticism of adventure. That spirit of exploration results in Hohn taking several risks out on the high seas, all to determine the possible fate of a plastic bath toy he could buy for $1 or less.
Hohn illustrates his skill as a teacher with numerous literary references, most often to Moby-Dick, although he vacillates to his sense of childhood frivolity with frequent mentions of Carle’s Ten Little Rubber Ducks. In addition to imparting his wisdom on literature (yes, picture books do count as literature), Hohn capably offers lessons of oceanography throughout Moby-Duck and sprinkles in history lessons of other commercial losses at sea as well as of other explorations along the waterways of his journey.
As for Hohn’s journey, the possibility that a yellow duck — or, to be fair, a red beaver, blue turtle, or green frog — could travel from the upper Pacific to the shores of Maine remains a concern until the end of his chase in 2008. In the end, though, the accumulation of facts and probabilities is only part of the story. Drawing on several years’ worth of travel, intensive study, and research, Hohn shares his insights on navigating the sometimes stormy waters of the adult world yet still seizing opportunities to let youthful exuberance set sail on occasion, or at least to splash around in the tub now and again.
Check the WRL catalog for Moby-Duck