On a volcanic island in the Savu Sea live the Lamalerans: a tribe of 1,500 hunter-gatherers who are the world's last subsistence whalers. They have survived for half a millennium by hunting whales with bamboo harpoons and handmade wooden boats powered by sails of woven palm fronds. But now, under assault from the rapacious forces of the modern era and a global economy, their way of life teeters on the brink of collapse.
... immersive, densely reported and altogether remarkable ... Like a first-rate novel, too, The Last Whalers has an abiding but unforced theme. It’s about the flood of modernity, in the form of outboard motors and cellphones and televised soap operas, as seen from the perspective of a curious but wary society that fears losing itself in the deluge. There’s a lot going on in this feat of journalism, but at heart it’s about a whaling community. Clark does not stint on beautiful, terrible, blood-streaked accounts of hunting sperm whales ... Clark’s writing is supple but unshowy ... Accumulated tensions are only slowly released. Scenes are delivered, not summaries. This book earns its emotions ... You finish The Last Whalers with hope for [the tribe described], and hope that Clark writes many more books.
This is no dry sociological/environmental treatise. Instead, it’s a gripping story of a community struggling for its very survival, and of the clash between ancient and modern worlds. Clark has a graceful, almost poetic writing style, and his vivid portrait of the Lamalerans and their way of life evokes in the reader a stirring image of a lost world, an ancient society that has somehow stayed virtually untouched by the march of time . . . until now.
... [a] forceful debut ... Clark’s finely wrought, deeply reported, and highly empathetic account is a human-level testament to dignity in the face of loss and a stoic adherence to cultural inheritance in the face of a rapidly changing world ... Clark’s prose soars, sometimes a little too high—things evanesce, sunsets fume, the stars are a heavenly chandelier—but that’s a small quibble. There are just as many lovely turns of phrase ... Furthermore, Clark’s sympathy for and devotion to his subjects is real: he speaks both Indonesian and Lamaleran and fosters an intimacy that allows him to disappear entirely in the telling of their story ... For the most part, Clark successfully depicts these people in their full human complexity rather than as primitive tropes ... His sympathetic view also glosses over certain less savory aspects of the village’s traditional way of life: the capriciousness and grinding poverty of the subsistence lifestyle, the rampant drinking and smoking, the curtailed life expectancy, and, more recently, the alleged trafficking of wildlife parts to the lucrative Chinese market.