four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
By: 
Donovan Hohn
user_rating: 
0

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

A-Moby-DuckDonovan Hohn is a senior editor of Harper's and winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize.

The Topic: As if the subtitle weren't summary enough! But Hohn's personal story is just as essential to Moby-Duck as those 28,800 plastic toys (not just "Rubber Duckies" but frogs, turtles, and beavers) that went overboard with a shipping container en route to the United States from Hong Kong in 1992. Hohn, an English teacher in Manhattan, first learned of the incident from a student more than a decade after the accident occurred. He soon became obsessed with the plastic toy spill and all that it symbolizes: not just humankind's littering of the sea with plastic junk but the Chinese toy industry, memories of childhood, and the enduring appeal of a certain white whale. By the time the story is finished, Hohn quit his job and traveled the world in pursuit of the ducks' story, and what he ended up with is no mere fish tale.
Viking. 416 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780670022199

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Moby-Duck is highly readable and, importantly, alive with a sense of intellectual curiosity. ... Indeed, what Melville did for whaling, Hohn has done for plastic bath toys lost at sea." Rob Verger

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Moby-Duck succeeds as harebrained adventure, as a cautionary environmental tale, as a deconstruction of consumer demand, and as a meditation on wilderness and imagination. ... Hohn seems to have it all: deep intelligence, a strikingly original voice, humility and a hunger to suss out everything a yellow duck may literally or metaphorically touch. Naturally, he can't, but the chase is, after all, the thing." Elizabeth Royte

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Hohn navigates the complicated fields of oceanography, environmentalism, globalization and maritime shipping with surprising humor and ease, raising pressing questions about these topics without giving any clear answers to them--because there aren't any. Hohn cleverly uses the deceptively whimsical premise of chasing a little plastic duck to provoke a massively complicated and thought-provoking conversation. Who knew spilled bath toys could be so important?" Dustin Michael Harris

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lost shipping containers are not unusual, so while journalist Donovan Hohn does a thoughtful job of explaining the historic, economic, artistic and scientific context for this problem through that 1992 spill, the unique pleasure in his book lies with--pause for breath, there's more!--what else he somehow manages also to fit in. Hohn searches for reasons why there is so much wayward garbage; where it starts from and where it goes, who collects it, and what they do with it; and what that ultimately means for the world's environment and economy." Kristin Thiel

Critical Summary

The more jaded book critics clearly feel that the "one object and how it changed the world" and the "everything that ever happened is connected to this event" genres have jumped the shark. Yet even admitting their skepticism, they were caught up by Moby-Duck--probably because, as some of them explained, the author's quest is in several senses quixotic (or maybe Melvillian): Hohn is a haplessly comic, hopelessly ambitious, superficially naïve, philosophical, and sophisticated writer all at once. They even forgave Hohn his corny title, noting that he is clearly a man whose love for literature is present even in life's sillier chases. Then again, as Hohn shows, these sillier chases can point to much deeper, often tragic, truths about our relationship with our world.