Big Miracle, by Tom Rose. St. Martin's, 2011. 324 pp. 978-0-312-62519-1.
... in which we learn about the international effort to rescue three California Gray whales trapped under the ice near Barrow, Alaska.
This is a review of an advanced copy provided to me through Goodreads' FirstReads program.
Big Miracle is the true story of the rescue of three trapped whales in 1988. The whales started their southern migration too late in the summer season, and soon found themselves trapped in the ice near Barrow, Alaska (the northernmost point of the United States). The story became an international tale, with people all around the world watching the events unfold on TV, and with an international group of people coming together to rescue these animals. Presumably this book was the inspiration for the movie of the same name being released this February, but I'm really skeptical.
I don't know if I've ever read a more frustrating book (hence the delay in its review... I finished the book weeks ago). The first thing that I feel I should mention is that this book was previously published in 1989 under the name Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event. I don't know about you, but to me, that original title doesn't suggest any kind of miracle, big or small. Tom Rose, the book's author, was one of the many journalists who converged on the tiny town of Barrow to cover this hugely popular story, so the book is told through the eyes of a journalist who found himself dumped at the top of the world to cover what was, to him, an inexplicably popular story about nothing.
I guess I'll start with the good things about the book (because they're easier to discuss). The story itself is really interesting... having been born in 1986, I am too young to remember it, so it was all entirely new to me. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of life in one of the harshest climates on the planet, and I enjoyed watching people from all walks of life come together to rescue some really amazing animals. The people were all interesting, and I did truly want to find out what happened to both the whales and their rescuers.
Having said that, the great story wasn't invented by Mr. Rose... he just put it on paper. If any credit is due to someone for the inspirational story, then it goes to the people who actively participated in the whales' rescue. As far as I can tell from the tone of the book, the only thing Mr. Rose did was report to the Japanese TV station that employed him, while mentally showering the whole thing with his scorn and disdain. I almost never got any sense of wonder from Mr. Rose's writing (snide and riddled with typos), and I found myself marking pages with some really amazing example of his ability to ruin something wonderful with his tone. Unfortunately, when I realized that I'd marked ten consecutive pages, I gave up before I ruined my copy of this wonderful book.
Among the examples of Mr. Rose's really inspirational writing are the following passages:
"Cindy didn't consider herself a left-wing anti-everything rabble-rouser; none of them ever do... in many ways, Cindy Lowry was Alaska's version of a limousine liberal." pp 88-89
"... in a very real sense, it was environmental activism that caused the Exxon Valdez disaster... similar points were made following the 2010 deadly blowout of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Why are companies like BP risking billions of dollars to drill so far out to sea and in waters so deep? Because environmentalists have succeeded in locking up available and accessible oil resources closer to shore not to mention dry land." pp 50-51 (The poor punctuation in that last sentence belongs to the author, not to me.)
Among the examples of Mr. Rose's strong grasp of the English language are such words as "prioritizetze" (pg 27) and the sentence "Did non-Inuit's really think that Eskimo's were so brittle as to be broken by some stupid sentence?" (pg 289), along with countless examples of missing quotation marks or lost commas.
As readers of this blog know, I think it's absolutely unforgivable when a published author has multiple typos or grammar errors in his or her book. If you, the author, don't catch your own mistakes, then you'd better hope you have an editor. It might be that this book was rushed to press in order for it to hit the bookshelves before the movie's release, but the quality of the book suffered for it. For example, when the book's epilogue was updated to cover events between 1989 and 2011, the author couldn't even be bothered to change the tense in some of his sentences. One key person in the story is described as living with his wife in Alaska, "where they can be seen driving in a silver Maserati" (pg 309), while two sentences later it says that the same person was killed in a plane crash in 1992. I highly doubt that we can still find him driving around in his silver car.
Apart from the questionable writing and editing in this book, I was even more bothered by the author's not-so-subtle disdain for everything environmental. He goes out of his way to complain multiple times about how oil drilling isn't allowed in ANWR, and the examples above are only a small sampling of his many digs at environmentalists in general. My own politics and beliefs notwithstanding, I don't feel like every story has to have some moral or political point, and this story could have been both inspiring and analytical without being nasty and snide. The story itself was enough to make most people happy, and there were multiple angles that Mr. Rose could have used to cover some of the more interesting aspects of international cooperation in the midst of a cold war between two superpowers.
I have numerous other small complaints (for example, Rose goes out of his way to acknowledge that while the native people do call themselves Inuit, everyone else calls them Eskimos so that's what he's going to use too), but they aren't as relevant as the complaints listed above. I really wanted to enjoy this book... and I really would have, if the author could have checked his politics and ego at the door.