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Moby-Duck: A Quest for the Story Behind Bathtime

How a student assignment led to an around-the-world adventure, or what Eric Carle has to do with environmentalism.

Ever really stopped to wonder where rubber duckies come from? Neither had we, until reading an utterly engrossing and unusual account of the ubiquitous yellow bath icons. Donovan Hohn’s 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, out this week, is a paragon of longform non-fiction journalism. (And, at 27 words, the book’s subtitle sells its contents but only hints at the absorbing exploits contained within its pages.)

Hohn was a New York City-based English teacher and self-proclaimed “would-be archaeologist of the ordinary” when, one semester, a student’s assignment presented him with an impossible-to-resist tale: In 1992, several cargo ship containers were lost at sea, snapping free during a violent storm during their charted course from China to the U.S. The resulting spill sent a haul of floating ducks, beavers, frogs, and turtles cascading into the Arctic, with the survivors washing up on Maine shores as much as a decade later. Hohn’s spark of interest would lead him to follow an obsessive oceanographer to Alaska, Hawaii, and eventually back to its origin in Guangdong province to satisfy his initial curiosity.

[Q]uestions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep.

Hohn has a dramatist’s feel for pacing that left us breathless despite knowing, from the outset, how the story ends — or so we thought. Seamlessly interweaving reflections on his impending fatherhood with lessons about global supply chain economics, Moby-Duck pulls off an increasingly difficult feat: getting us to care about the impact of our consumption on our planet. We were thoroughly entertained by Hohn’s portrayals of the eccentric cast of characters surrounding the wayward bath toys, and hypnotized by his great storytelling gifts.

I pictured the ducks afloat like yellow pixels on the vast, gray acreage of the waves, or skiing down the glassy slopes of fifty-foot swells, or coasting through the Arctic on floes of ice. I imagined standing on a beach somewhere in Newfoundland or Maine–places I had never visited or given much thought. I imagined looking out and seeing a thousand tiny nodding yellow faces, white triangles glinting in their cartoon eyes, insipid smiles molded into the orange rubber of their clownish bills.

We hope that Moby-Duck makes a splash — pun fully intended — in proportion to its sweeping exploration of contemporary life’s complexities.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.


Published April 1, 2011

https://www.brainpickings.org/2011/04/01/moby-duck/

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