February 9, 2012 | by Jeremiah Chamberlin
In the fall of 1997, Donovan Hohn (M.F.A. ’04) was tending bar at the Noho Star in Manhattan, the watering hole of famed Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham and the rest of his staff. Hohn learned their drinks—for Lapham, Mount Gay rum on the rocks in a wine glass—but he never mentioned his own literary pursuits. “I was newly arrived in New York,” he says, “and those magazines like Harper’s or The New Yorker were like Oz. They seemed magical and intimidating.”
One afternoon the bar’s assistant manager passed along a copy of a literary journal, in which Hohn had recently published a story, to Harper’s editor Colin Harrison. Impressed, Harrison offered to take Hohn out to lunch. And though Hohn didn’t realize it at the time, he was auditioning. “Colin had a gift for, and a love for, scouting. And he was very generous with young writers.”
In this case, he urged Hohn to apply for one of the select Harper’s internships, a rigorous application process that involves designing an entire issue of the magazine. Hohn had one week. But with a lot of work and a bit of luck, he ended up being chosen to join that year’s cohort.
His luck continued: A few months after he’d finished the internship, a position for assistant editor at the magazine opened. What followed was an education in literary journalism, one that he would eventually carry into the classroom. After three years at Harper’s and two subsequent years at the University of Michigan, where he received his M.F.A. in poetry, Hohn took a job teaching English at a Quaker high school in Manhattan. Here, he designed a 12th-grade literary journalism class, drawing on his experience at the magazine.
One of the assignments he gave his students, based on the “Annotations” section of Harper’s, was to pick an artifact and research its history. One individual chose his rubber ducky that he carried around with him.
“One of the required steps,” Hohn says, “was to go through the news archives searching for facts and trivia about your artifact. And the best thing he found was this little news item about duckies that fell off a container ship.”
The container ship was the Evergreen Ever Laurel, which on January 10th of 1992 encountered bad weather south of the Aleutians, an area once dubbed the Graveyard of the Pacific. During that wintery storm—in which other ships in the vicinity had reported hurricane-force winds and 36-foot waves—12 containers were swept overboard. One such container held 28,800 bath toys.
Map © 2011 by David Cain
Imagining the scene in his recent book, Moby-Duck (Viking, 2011), Hohn would later write, “We know that as the water gushed in and the container sank, dozens of cardboard boxes would have come bobbing to the surface, that one by one, they too would have come apart, discharging thousands of little packages onto the sea; that every package comprised a plastic shell and a cardboard back; that every shell housed four plastic animals—a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck—each about three inches long; and that printed on the cardboard in colorful letters in a bubbly, childlike font were the following words: THE FIRST YEARS. FLOATEES. THEY FLOAT IN TUB OR POOL.”
And on the ocean, it would turn out. As well as in the author’s imagination.
Because Hohn couldn’t stop thinking about the toys and their voyage across the sea, he eventually asked his student if he could pursue the topic himself. The student said yes, and Hohn pitched the idea to his editor at Harper’s.
It was supposed to be a short assignment: a 5,000-word article. Something he could do over the summer, as his wife had recently become pregnant with their first child. He’d spend some time in the library archives, make some phone calls to scientists and shipping companies, and that would be it.
But then he spoke to Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an Alaskan oceanographer who produces a quarterly newsletter called Beachcombers’ Alert, who’d published a scientific paper about the ducks. “There was one thing he said to me—which was absolutely true—and is as true for beachcombing as it is for journalism, which was: ‘You can’t go beachcombing by phone. You gotta get out there and look.’ That was very much the spirit of the sort of journalism I do. You do want to get out there and look, you do want to meet people. You don’t want to just work the phones.”
Better yet, Ebbesmeyer had offered to get Hohn a seat on a boat going out to the island, not far from Sitka, Alaska, where the toys had first made landfall. He also sent him a map with a trail marking their potential progress. “That’s when I first started to imagine…what if?” Hohn says. “What if I did this crazy thing? What if I went all the way to China where they were made? What if I crossed the ocean on a container ship?”
He did. Beginning in the summer of 2005 and continuing over the next several years, Hohn traveled on a container ship from China to Seattle, and on an icebreaker through the Northwest Passage. He crewed aboard a catamaran trawling for plastic off the coast of Hawaii and skirted glaciers in Greenland. And, of course, he made numerous trips to Alaska, where, with a bit of work and luck, he even found one of the toys himself—a red beaver that had been bleached white by the sun and water during its nearly two decades adrift.
His adventures in Moby-Duck illuminate the secretive practices of maritime conglomerates and Chinese toy makers, highlight the difficulties of bringing polluters to justice, and question the real price of cheap plastic. While the rubber ducks symbolize loss and childhood in a figurative way, they—and their floating companions—are also very real environmental hazards: non-biodegradable plastic pollution, which has begun to have an increasing ill effect on our oceanic ecosystem.
Like Melville’s great narrator, Ishmael, Donovan Hohn has “sailed across oceans and swam through libraries.” This quote serves as an apt epigraph for Moby-Duck—a beautiful journey into the changing natural world and international commerce, the myths of childhood, and the vast wilderness of the sea. It is a story of a schoolteacher who took the very advice he’d once given his students: to be curious, to make unlikely connections, to find the scope of the world in the tiniest of artifacts. In this case, a tiny yellow duck.
Jeremiah Chamberlin is the associate director of LSA’s English Department Writing Program and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review.