SEPTEMBER 4, 2018
TWO WORDS APPEAR frequently in lauded YA author Patrick Ness’s new novel, And The Ocean Was Our Sky: “prophecy” and “harpoon.” This is no surprise since the novel is an homage of sorts to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West arguably set the tone for recent revisionist takes on well-known narratives, though Ness’s And The Ocean Was Our Sky doesn’t directly reference characters or scenes from Melville’s original. He alludes to them: there’s the ocean, the whales, the men, the hunting, the death, and the over-mastering drive for revenge. Call it a prequel, an intimate dive into undersea mysteries that bears witness to why the White Whale was always fated to win. In Ness’s imaging, the whales are not the only ones being hunted: the men are, too.
“Call me Bathsheba” opens the book, echoing one of the most famous opening lines in world literature. There is a slight verisimilitude between Ishmael and Bathsheba — both are innocent, eager, and wise, and both are saved from death miraculously in the end. Like Ishmael, Bathsheba narrates the story, but unlike Ishmael, Bathsheba is a whale — a young female who swims the seas with her pod, including the renowned Captain Alexandra and two senior apprentices. The pod also includes an underwater sailboat that holds “sailors” — scavengers who collect objects from wrecked ships for use by the whale population as they traverse the sea hunting men. The whales, as depicted in Rovina Cai’s haunting illustrations, are coiled with rope and stuck with harpoons, and the ship they drag behind them mirrors the whale carcasses tied to the crafts in Moby-Dick.
Why it would appeal to men to hunt these majestic mammals — behead them, gut them, drain their oil, feed their carcasses to sharks — is a question that lies at the heart of Ness’s affecting fable. As Bathsheba states:
I had my own, personal reasons by that point, too, but what more reason did a young whale need than the fact that men had hunted us for time immemorial and hunting men was what we did in return? It was a whale’s duty, if so prophesied, and I embraced it.
The dark fate of massacred whales drives Bathsheba on: she watched her mother get slaughtered by men — that is, by one man in particular, a dark legend known as Toby Wick. Just as Captain Ahab and his crew sought the White Whale, so Captain Alexandra and her pod hunt this monster-among-men. He’s called The Devil, and he may not be real. Perhaps Toby Wick represents all men, or perhaps he really is the Devil — either way, it is prophesied that the fierce Captain Alexandra and her three apprentices shall destroy him, and thus end an epoch of slaughter at sea. To say much more would spoil the story.
The creation of Toby Wick harkens back to Ness’s most popular work, A Monster Calls (2011), the Carnegie Medal– and Greenway Medal–winning book that Spanish director J. A. Bayona turned into one of the most heart-wrenchingly ugly-cry films to hit the screen in the past few decades. Toby Wick mirrors the Monster in A Monster Calls in mythical magnitude: both are colossal, fierce, veritably Tolkienesque. Both novels’ protagonists — Conor in A Monster Calls and Bathsheba in And The Ocean Was Our Sky — are struggling with loss: Conor’s mother is dying of cancer, while Bathsheba’s has been murdered by men. Both question the authority figures in their lives and stand up for what they believe in.
Ness is an author who doesn’t tip-toe over controversial sociopolitical content, as evidenced in his 2017 novel Release. Another example of revisionist exploration, Release is a puzzling but emotionally resonant amalgamation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Judy Blume’s Forever… (1975). In the book, as in Blume’s novel, sexual encounters between young men are graphically but adorably portrayed. Parallel to the gay teen story line is one that explores addiction, murder, and an ancient ghostly entity. In his acknowledgments to that novel, Ness thanked his agent and editors “for never once balking at the zigzag sequence of books I keep turning in.” And The Ocean Was Our Sky marks another sharp swerve in his career.
Ness’s strong sense of social justice has the helm. The pod of whales that hunts Toby Wick is entirely female; you can practically picture them swimming through the sea wearing pink pussy hats woven for heads the size of 747s. There’s even a passing homage to Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who was silenced during her impassioned plea against the confirmation of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. “Everyone knew about the short, rusted end of a man’s harpoon still sticking from [Captain Alexandra’s] great head. She was the Captain who’d survived, the Captain who, even though the harpoon must, on some level, impede her echolocation, nevertheless persisted…”
Environmentalism is a major theme, obviously. This is a story about whales that seek to protect the sea from men’s “bloody killings, their sloppy, wasteful harvesting proving they killed as much for sport as for need.” In exchanges with rival whale pods (mirroring Moby-Dick’s nine gams, the hunting ships that meet at sea to discuss their prey), Ness reveals that the single aim of each whale pod during every hunt is the “eradication of man.” At a time when the Environmental Protection Agency has initiated the largest regulatory reversal in its history, rolling back oversight at a rapid pace, the whales in Ness’s tale are driven by the urge to eradicate human arrogance and stupidity.
As per the magic of good writing, however, one need not read the tale as cautionary or even political at all. This is, ultimately, a book for young readers, and the suspenseful cat-and-mouse-revenge plot and the otherworldly illustrations produce a churning sea of thrilling adventure. And The Ocean Was Our Sky neither packs the emotional a punch nor offers as nuanced a story line as the author’s earlier novels, but it stands on its own as a work of highly imaginative middle-grade fantasy. Cai’s striking illustrations should help keep young minds, fraught with Snapchat selfies and other social media images, absorbed.
It is to the credit of the YA and middle-grade market that Patrick Ness’s works are continually published. Whether challenged by parental loss, confused sexuality, unfeeling authority, or even thoughts of suicide, Ness’s noble young characters, gifted and flawed at once, show that this is an author with his finger firmly on the pulse of the youth-nation. Bathsheba the whale is another honorable addition to his radiant literary family. “Take this name,” she says in the book’s last lines. “Take Bathsheba and make it a story of peace. For there are devils in the deep, but worst are the ones we make.”
Tim Cummings holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles. His work has appeared in F(r)iction, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, From Whispers to Roars, LARB, and ANTHOLOGY: The Ojai Playwrights Conference Youth Workshop 2006-2016, which he compiled and edited.