Looking for a Ship (Magill Book Reviews)
John McPhee’s readership can be divided into two parts: the geologists and all the rest. For the latter (presumably the larger contingent), it has been hard going in recent years, though both THE CONTROL OF NATURE and RISING FROM THE PLAINS included more human detail and less plate tectonics than their geological predecessors, IN SUSPECT TERRAIN and BASIN AND RANGE. There have been other gems, too, such as “Heirs of General Practice,” about idealistic young doctors in family practice (included in the collection TABLE OF CONTENTS). For many readers, however, LOOKING FOR A SHIP will be McPhee’s most satisfying book since COMING TO THE COUNTRY, his 1977 best-seller about modern-day homesteaders in Alaska.
LOOKING FOR A SHIP is the narrative of a voyage on an American merchant ship, the STELLA LYKES, from Charleston, South Carolina, to the west coast of South America and back, via the Panama Canal. McPhee uses this voyage to dramatize the sad state of the U.S. Merchant Marine and to portray the men who still make their living on the sea. (Geologists will find that they are not entirely neglected, as McPhee quotes some wonderful snippets from Charles Darwin on the geology of South America’s Pacific coast.)
Here, as in so many of McPhee’s books, there is a particularly vivid portrait of an individual who sums up in his character and experience much of the history of the subject at hand--in this case, Captain Paul McHenry Washburn, a...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
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Looking for a Ship (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Admirers of John McPhee have noticed a common element in his many books, as well as in his regular articles in The New Yorker: McPhee likes to write about people who are confident that their work is important and are determined to do their jobs well. The canoemaker in The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975), the vegetable-growers and the chef in Giving Good Weight (1979), the geologist in Basin and Range (1981), and the men of the merchant marine in Looking for a Ship are all enthusiastic about what they do. When McPhee moves into the various worlds where his people live, observing their work and obtaining answers to hundreds of questions, he takes his readers along, and they find themselves fascinated by subjects which may be extremely remote from their own natural interests.
One does not have to be a sailor, for example, to admire the men McPhee describes in Looking for a Ship. Their love of the sea is indicated by the very title of the book. Since the number of American merchant ships is steadily declining, the men who wish to go to sea must take turns. They stay on shore for months, living on the earnings from the last voyage, until they have moved high enough in the rotation system to be given slots on ships. Furthermore, because of the scarcity of ships under the American flag, they sometimes have to accept jobs below their actual rank. It is obvious that a man who is willing to live under these...
(The entire section is 2061 words.)