Janet Maslin, of the New York Times, has recently offered an amusing but serious review of an apparently amusing but serious book: "The Siren Song of the Bath Toy" (February 20, 2011), on Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck.
Here's the book's extended subtitle, a lengthy subtext worthy of the 19th century: 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.
Bath toys? Lost at sea? As explained in an opening statement that also proves Ms. Maslin not the sort of writer to skimp on commas:
On Jan. 10, 1992, a container ship traveling south of the Aleutians, in the region once quaintly known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Wash., took a steep roll and lost part of its cargo.Playthings. And we already know what kind of playthings. Exactly "7,200 packs of bathtub toys." But there's a twist of fateful misunderstanding that was to prove decisive for Mr. Hohn decision to go to sea:
Each four-piece set included a blue turtle, a green frog, a red beaver and a yellow duck. This came to be erroneously understood as the story of 29,000 rubber duckies set adrift and washing up all over the globe.Duckies are close enough, and the mythical 29,000 of them surely equal one great white whale in significance. Finding them was a job for a "modern-day Ishmael"! But the trail was cold, for Hohn only learned of the loss after 2007, when the 'duckies' had experienced "more than 15 years as castaways." So, why did he set out on a quixotic quest to find the ducks? Ms. Maslin explains:
Here's an important point about Mr. Hohn's many and varied subsequent travels and observations: He was not one of those journalists who dream up make-work projects and seek out exploits that can be turned into amusing reading. "Moby-Duck" makes him sound genuinely open-minded, inquisitive and eager to expand his own understanding of the freakish event on which he'd grown fixated. And he was eager to enhance his secondhand ideas about how the world works with firsthand images and experiences, which he eagerly incorporates into "Moby-Duck." As he puts it, he was not someone, like the explorers of old, who sought to turn the world into a map. "Quite the opposite," he says. "I wanted to turn a map into a world."All that, yes, but he had also loved toy ducks as a child and had even borne the nickname "Donovan Duck." As Wordsworth put it, "The child is the father of the man," and Hohn's a typical nonexception that proves the rule. That must have been one hardy child, for the tale apparently takes a rough turn as he nears the end of his quest:
The last and most definitive parts of this book take Mr. Hohn to the apparent heart of darkness of his story: up through the Bering Strait and across the Northwest Territories. He is on board an icebreaker headed from Resolute to Cambridge Bay. And it is here that his strength of will as well as his boyish faith in the bath-toy armada will be tested. He is on the route that Floatees would have followed if they really got through the ice and voyaged all the way to Kennebunkport, Me. But he is now wise enough to realize that the Floatees may not have behaved exactly as expected, and that their actual fate is almost beside the point. What matters is that Mr. Hohn is now being addressed as "You! On the winch!" He has made himself a participant in a bona fide adventure. And he has done this without cheapening the great love of "Moby-Dick" that suffuses "Moby-Duck."But not all is dark and seriously adventuresome, for the journey has its light, literary moments:
He has even found a ship's second officer who greets him with Ahab's famous question: "Hast seen the White Whale?" It's a rare English teacher who has been asked that question while at sea and has been able to answer: "Hast seen the Yellow Duck?"But to see, or not to see . . . Or rather, to sea, or not to sea. That was the real question. And a marvelous quest seems to have followed.
Culminating in a book as provocatively titled as its 19th-century inspiration . . .