The Bookworm Sez

Book review: Moby-Duck

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Real AspenMarch 6, 2011

Somebody should be ashamed of themselves.

Whoever it was, they forgot a basic tenet of kindergarten: if you make a mess, you clean it up. But there it is, trash all over the place. Paper bags, plastic sacks, crumpled aluminum, debris you don’t want to think about, all scattered on the ground. Somebody – or a lot of somebodies – missed the trash can and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

But when that somebody is a large corporation and the mess can’t be easily contained, what happens? In the new book “Moby-Duck” by Donovan Hohn, the answer isn’t always clear.

One late night in March 2005, while teacher and “part-time archaeologist of the ordinary” Donovan Hohn was grading papers written by his journalism students, a particular essay caught his imagination.

The student wrote about a ship carrying a load of plastic toys bound for Tacoma in 1992. When the vessel encountered a storm, several shipping containers fell overboard, spilling 28,800 yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs, and blue turtles into the Pacific Ocean. It was believed that ocean currents would eventually carry the toys north and around the continent to New England beaches.

Intrigued, Hohn learned that at least one duck had allegedly been spotted in Maine in the years between spill and essay. But what about the other 28,799 plastic animals?

“Moby-Duck: 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” by Donovan Hohn c.2011, Viking $27.95 / $35.00 Canada 402 pages, includes notes

Buy it on Amazon

He had to know…

Though his wife was very pregnant with their first child, Hohn figured there was time for a beachcombing sojourn near Sitka, Alaska, where dozens of the toys had landed years before. The current had bestowed lots of debris upon the coast, but he hadn’t enough time to pursue plastic: Hohn had to return to Manhattan for the birth of his son.

Two years later, the search was back on when Hohn joined a clean-up group near Alaska, where trash was so thick, moss and humus grew atop it. From there he joined a crew exploring the Eastern Garbage Patch near Hawaii, looking for tiny bits of poly amid plankton.

He went to China to see where the toys originated, came home aboard a cargo freighter, then went north to the Arctic Circle, all the while wondering: could plastic ducks really make it through the Northwest Passage?

Worried about global warming, polar bears, ice melts, and ducks? This book won’t give you much good news, but it explains things you may be wondering – if you can just stick with it.

Author Donovan Hohn is lighthearted throughout his book, and his curiosity is infectious. He gives “Moby-Duck” an adventurous feel, but he tends to get off-track quite often in this tale of a search for bathtub toys. Those digressions, though they aren’t out of place, can be lengthy. Some readers may find them enlightening; others, like me, may struggle in staying focused.

Still, I think this is a book that every politician, plastic-producer, and polluter should read before taking out the garbage this week. For them – and for anyone concerned about our environment – missing what’s inside “Moby-Duck” would be a dirty shame.

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