The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific With a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life
(Little, Brown, $30)
Most of humanity is barred from whale hunting, but one tribe on a remote Indonesian island depends on it. In a new book that reads like a first-rate novel, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times, journalist Doug Bock Clark plunges us into the daily lives of the Lamalerans, a 1,500-strong tribe and the world’s last subsistence whalers. A chant arises among them whenever sperm whales are spotted offshore—“Baleo! Baleo!”—sending men with bamboo harpoons racing to their rowboats. A large whale can take 10 harpoons, and will often fight, sometimes killing a man. After a successful hunt, the whale is butchered, an act described in bloody detail. But Clark, who spent parts of three years with the tribe, offers above all a compassionate portrait of a society at risk of obliteration.
Clark’s book “raises many questions about ‘progress,’” said Gabriel Thompson in the San Francisco Chronicle. The cooperation needed to fell a 65-ton whale has produced one of the most generous societies on earth. But the modern world—in the form of smartphones, TVs, motorboats—has begun to intrude, and old traditions are being forgotten. A growing number of young Lamalerans are leaving the island to take soul-sapping menial jobs. “It is the threat of being cut off from the sea that looms largest,” and Clark captures what the Lamalerans would lose with descriptions of seafaring “so vivid that the reader can feel the sting of water up the nose.”
At times, Clark romanticizes the people he’s describing, said Tim Sohn in Outside. He glosses over “less savory aspects of the village’s traditional way of life”: the grinding poverty and the rampant drinking and smoking. The tribe has now attracted the attention of conservation groups, who want to limit the hunt and force the Lamalerans to embrace ecotourism. Clark sides with the Lamalerans, pointing out that their volcanic island offers few other means of sustenance. “His sympathy for and devotion to his subjects is real,” and we’re better off for his “human-level testament to dignity in the face of loss.”