In 1992, 28,000 children's bath toys were lost at sea when a container ship hit rough seas on a journey from China to the US. A few years later, mild-mannered--seriously, really mild-mannered--high school literature teacher and sometime magazine writer Donovan Hohn heard about this story during a flurry of reports of rubber duckies being spotted at sea. He couldn't get the image out of his head, this most innocuous and cheerful of children's toys floating lost on the high, dangerous seas. He thought it would make a good story for a magazine, perhaps something that he could research with a few phone interviews. Instead, Hoch found himself on a multiyear odyssey that mixed him up with warring environmental groups in Alaska, beachcombers in Washington State, toy manufacturers in China, hard-living sailors on a container ship, and scientists in Greenland. And those are just a few of the people, places, and topics covered in Hohn's book 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. While on his wild goose (duck?) chase, Hohn becomes a first time father, has back surgery, and leaves his teaching job. You might say that Hohn has more adventures than the ducks.
I always love books where you learn a lot of different things, where one topic spins out into another, creating a giant web of interconnected strings of information. Sometimes my eyes glazed over a little at the detailed explanations about plastic composition or ocean currents (I would have expected the latter to captivate me a little more, but nevertheless), but the overall big ideas made an impact--most notably that our attempt to manage the world's vast amount of plastic garbage through recycling or cleanups, seems virtually hopeless, but to drastically cut down on our use of plastic would throw our lives back into the 19th century. And while that may appeal to some people, I admit that I'm not ready to go back to a world where I would be typing this on a heavy metal typewriter and doctors rationed injections because of the cost and fragility of glass needles. The best we can do, it seems, is just grimly try to make sure we're not using too much really pointless plastic--individual plastic water bottles, packages with too much plastic, disposable plastic dishes--and hope a less damaging alternative will eventually be invented.
Hohn is the opposite of outdoorsy, and one of the last people you would choose to have helping out on board a ship in rough seas. He is physically awkward and afraid of just about everything. It appears that the only thing stronger than the many fears he feels is his own curiosity and persistence--and as someone who teaches American literature, including "Moby Dick," he is more than a little familiar with the pitfalls of excessive persistence. But while Hohn makes himself and his personal journey a part of the story, he doesn't cross the line into bathetic, overly self-reflective territory. He is a wry, self-deprecating narrator, who is both distanced enough from himself to realize when he looks like an idiot, but who is close enough to the reader that when he writes near the end of the book, in the middle of another cold, wet, improbably adventure, that he fervently wishes to have a nice quiet job with insurance that will keep him chained to a desk all day, you genuinely feel sympathy for him (well, at least I did). Best of all, he has that most important of all qualities for a nonfiction writer--curiosity. I recommend this one.