A rubber duckie, unconfined by the porcelain walls of a tub, has quite a taste for travel. In Donovan Hohn’s feat of research and clever writing, we learn a lot about unfettered voyage, the ocean, the disaster that is plastic, garbage in general and whatever else a plastic duck interacts with on its journey of nearly endless discovery.
"Moby-Duck" By Donovan Hohn. Viking, New York, 2011. 416 pages. $27.95.
A rubber duckie, unconfined by the porcelain walls of a tub, has quite a taste for travel.
In Donovan Hohn’s feat of research and clever writing, we learn a lot about unfettered voyage, the ocean, the disaster that is plastic, garbage in general and whatever else a plastic duck interacts with on its journey of nearly endless discovery. We also learn that the way of the duck is the way of the world’s cast-away plastic. Plastic as transformed into the irresistible happy face of a duck is nonetheless a grinning menace of enormous proportions.
Hohn, with his full tank of curiosity fueling him ever onward and his busy mind working the language into artful and hilarious configurations, is the perfect mouthpiece for 28,800 hatchlings set adrift on Jan. 10, 1992. It was then that a 20-foot-long shipping container carrying plastic toys commissioned by a toy company in Avon, Mass., was flung from a freighter during a storm in the North Pacific.
By tracking currents and newspaper articles, and by consulting oceanographers and the most ardent beachcombers, Hohn finds that some of the toys’ first landfall was Kruzof Island, Alaska, in the fall of ’92. Before the story — and the journey — conclude, Hohn has himself interacted with dozens of characters studying floating garbage patches, cleaning up remote beaches, working in quirky research labs, research vessels and even duckie manufacturing plants in China. The freed fleet of Floatees (a mix of yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles) inspired not just Hohn but advertising agencies, journalists and the author of a children’s book.
“Moby-Duck” has lengthy subtitle because it’s not an easy book to describe. It is: “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.” I saw the author speak recently and he spent an equivalent amount of time in advance of his reading detailing the many angles of examination. That he doesn’t have a handy “elevator speech” has not been much of a detriment. His book is launched with starred reviews and hearty cheers.
He explains that “happenstance, my travel agent, is a terrible travel agent,” in part because destinations and accommodations were revealed as he went and not usually the height of comfort. Such a travel agent is, however, the perfect enabler for a writer of Hohn’s penchant for wit. A teacher from Manhattan with a special interest in “Moby-Dick,” he seeks and finds plenty of meaning in the voyage of this modern-day icon.
He also says that his questions, which launched him on this journey, can, like ocean currents, carry you away. So true. On the one hand, it’s nice to encounter a book bravely chock full of interesting side trips. On the other, I prefer a dramatic arc pulling me from Point A to Point B. It’s because Hohn is a fabulous writer that this book, with its wonderful cover and its pages of tangential investigations, got made. Note also that 690 miles from Sitka, Alaska, in an area known as the North Pacific Drift, the freed toys part ways. The combination of current and weather and happenstance creates the varied drifts that compel Hohn to explore the divergent paths.
Duckies ended up in Alaska, in the north Pacific floating garbage patch, on Plastic Beach in Hawaii, and, possibly but not likely on a beach in Maine. To get through the Northwest Passage to Kennebunkport takes 416 pages and several voyages, after which you are far less tempted, no matter how thirsty, to reach for a bottle of water or a plastic grocery bag.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.