A finely spun chronicle of the wide-ranging quest to track the wanderings of a rubber duck lost at sea, from Harper’s senior editor Hohn.
In 1992, a crate toppled off a container ship and dumped much of its cargo into the Pacific Ocean. Among the lost items were thousands of rubber toys. Ten years later, a yellow rubber duck of the same manufacture, barnacled and tortured by the elements, washed ashore in Maine. Could it have made it through the Northwest Passage? Thus began Hohn’s pursuit for an answer. In prose that varies in tone from reflective to unaffectedly cool to delightfully wide-eyed (“[w]hat misanthrope, what damp, drizzly November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart?”), the author follows in the wake of a half-dozen Virgils on a tour through driftology, oceanography, environmental degradation and the economics of toy-making. The characters are an engaging bunch—some crusty, some charismatic, some just doing their jobs—all with a touch of local color and all raising as many questions as they answer. Hohn spent time in the company of flotsam gatherers, on the shop floor of a Chinese toy company and with scientists exploring the toxic nature of plastic, and he learned about monster waves and the mysteries of tides and currents. He also crossed the Pacific on a container ship to refresh his sense of awe. To his credit, he doesn’t dodge difficult questions: Should we tackle pollution at the source or on the beach? How do you measure the value of place? Can a small rubber duck push through the murderous climes of the Arctic?
There are no easy answers, but it’s the hunt that counts, and Hohn makes it a gladdening, artful journey of discovery.