It’s likely that author Donovan Hohn references one of Sesame Street’s most famous hits throughout his new-in-paperback book, Moby Duck, to get readers into the mood for crazytown. Because what’s crazier than homosexual singing puppets? How about this: in January 1992, a shipment of toys was en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, WA when the ship was caught in a storm. Much of the cargo—including 28,800 plastic animals (most notably, 7,200 rubber ducks)—fell overboard in the accident. The occurrence was never reported due to liability. Then, starting in 2003, after an 11+ year ocean journey, rubber ducks began showing up on the shores of Seattle, and different beaches throughout California, Alaska, and, somehow, Maine. One way or another, the ducks not only survived, but ended up on beaches all over the country, then later, the world.
Hohn was a high school English teacher with no scientific education when he first heard the totally bizarre bath toy story. He became obsessed with the string of events that led to the rubber duck spill, as well as the accident’s aftermath. His wife was about to have their first child, but Hohn insisted that he belonged among rubber ducks and shoreline sewage. With what I can only presume was a hidden stash of money, Hohn jumped into several planes, cruise liners, helicopters, and rental cars to trace the ducks’ path, learn about environmentalism, rub shoulders with a pack of beachcombers, and learn how to pee in the wild.
At first glance, Moby Duck could easily be mistaken for fiction, but the story is true. On the one hand, Hohn explains the trials and tribulations of “a near-sighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary,” but he also examines intricate details of plastics pollution, oceanography, making polyethylene (the most commonly used plastic), and life as a crewmember aboard large ships sailing through treacherous waters. This dual format, unfortunately, makes Moby Duck unnecessarily long. Hohn’s discoveries are interesting, and the reader appreciates a quick explanation of the fancy science jargon, but the story feels like Hohn never decided whether to write a book about his life or a book about neat scientific things. Right now, he has at least three books started:
1) How Plastic Is Destroying The World
2) Why The Children’s Toy Market Is Terrifying
and 3) My Life As An Absent Father
(with room for a 4th: How My Wife Went Crazy While I Chased Toys And Left Her Alone With The Baby)
The style and subsequent editing of the book are also puzzling. In some ways, Hohn transforms an incredibly dry subject into a thriller, a mystery, and an action-packed drama. But sometimes he talks like Yoda:
I also liked them because I have since childhood found natural history more enchanting than nature, whatever that was.
But the quirky one-liners are worth it, though, and Hohn’s story is obviously extraordinary (he’s the Christopher Columbus of bath toys.) Plus, aside from the occasionally mysterious sentence structure, the man can definitely write:
Wildly out of scale and dyed a lurid, maraschino red, the beaver seems altogether out of place in this menagerie, a mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip.
More than, anything, though, Hohn’s story feels genuine. Not only was he on the brink of first-time parenthood when he began his research, he was also highly unprepared for much of his journey. For one, he has an intense shark phobia, but spent an awful lot of time on the open seas—a few times even IN the open seas. Hohn learned how to cure seasickness, and how to stomach beef jerky and very little drinking water for days at a time. His paternal struggles, paired with his very real fears and complete submission to the unknown, make his writing relatable, as well as memorable. And you’ll just have to read the book to see whether or not he finds a rubber duck in all that exploring.