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“This book is a gorgeous journey…You will be glad you’ve joined her.” —Susan Orlean, author of On Animals and The Library Book
In this memoir of motherhood, love, and resilience, a woman and her toddler son follow the grey whale migration from Mexico to northernmost Alaska.
In this striking blend of nature writing, whale science, and memoir, Doreen Cunningham interweaves two stories: tracking the extraordinary northward migration of the grey whales with a mischievous toddler in tow and living with an Iñupiaq family in Alaska seven years earlier. Throughout the journey she explores the stories of the whales and their young calves—their history, their habits, and their attempts to survive the changes humans have brought to the ocean.
Cunningham’s voice is powerful: sharp, profound, sensitive, and unflinching. A story of courage and resilience, Soundings is about the migrating whales and all we can learn from them as they mother, adapt, and endure, their lives interrupted and threatened by global warming. It is also a riveting journey onto the Arctic Sea ice and into the changing world of Indigenous whale hunters, where Doreen becomes immersed in the ancient values of the Iñupiaq whale hunt and falls in love. For this is Doreen’s story, too—a fierce, feminist tale, touching on her childhood and her time living in a Women’s Refuge with her baby, becoming a mother, just like the whales.
Lyrical, brave, and fearlessly honest, Soundings is an unforgettable journey.
About the Author
Doreen Cunningham is an Irish-British writer born in Wales. After studying engineering Doreen worked briefly in climate-related research at the Natural Environment Research Council and in storm modeling at Newcastle University before turning to journalism. She worked for the BBC World Service variously as an international news presenter, reporter, and editor for twenty years. She won the RSL Giles St Aubyn Award 2020 and was shortlisted for the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writers Award 2021 for Soundings, her first book.
One of the New Statesman's Best Books of 2022 so far
"A striking, brave and often lyrical book that defies easy interpretation ... Cunningham adroitly sidesteps much of the male-dominated narratives about whales and whaling, and clearly takes inspiration more from Inuit mythology than from Herman Melville. She and her son make for an unconventionally heroic pair ... Whale mothers and their calves, meanwhile, surface and dive alongside the pair, and Cunningham movingly describes their bonds of cooperation, which find pointed echoes and contrasts in her travelling companions and personal relationships. Her sensuous descriptions of grey whales and humpbacks provide some of the book’s richest passages; she looks at the whales and then looks at her son, looking at whales, which look back."
"Cunningham is consistently forthcoming and self-aware, and she delivers an informed perspective on climate change and ecological damage ... A gorgeous, heartfelt coda brings the narrative to a close, and we can’t deny our own sympathies. An absorbing account that offers urgent warnings for humankind."
"This book is a gorgeous journey. Cunningham guides us elegantly from Mexico to Alaska, riding along with wild gray whales. And she excels as well at bringing the reader along on her personal journey of motherhood, struggle, and epiphany. You will be glad you’ve joined her."
—Susan Orlean, author of On Animals and The Library Book
“A raw and rapturous work of nature writing. Or is it memoir? Adventure journalism? Pop science? Climate cri de coeur? This foul-mouthed, gimlet-eyed, big-hearted chimera of a book is all of those—and more.”
—Robert Moor, bestselling author of On Trails: An Exploration
“Fascinating . . . an intimate journey through a world already altered by climate change.”
—Sjón, author of The Whispering Muse
“Through her journey from Mexico to Alaska, Doreen Cunningham develops what can only be described as a spiritual relationship with the gray whales. Readers will be further enriched by her ability to seamlessly integrate traditional Indigenous knowledge and science of the sea, ice, and the world of the Iñupiat who hunt the mammoth baleen whales.”
—Rosita Kaaháni Worl, Ph.D., President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute
"Soundings is a story of whales and people, of kinship and questing, and perhaps most of all of the connections among our human selves and across species. With a lyrical voice and tremendous emotional honesty, Doreen Cunningham defies genre and skips easy romance to bring us a cetacean journey—and a journey into the tough, transformative stuff of making community in this beautiful, harsh and changeable world."
—Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait
“Soulful, honest, insightful, humane, and best of all, propulsive … I was deeply moved and fell in love with Doreen’s story.”
—Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland
"A spellbinding journey of discovery told with deep sensitivity and honesty."
—Dr. Edith Widder, CEO & Senior Scientist of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association
"Doreen's is a thrilling, passionate and tenderhearted adventure. I read this book in one sitting, and couldn’t sleep that night – my mind was still filled with her extraordinary endurance, her wild spirit."
—Helen Jukes, author of A Honeybee’s Heart has Five Openings
"Defiant, despairing, hopeful, restless and compelled – Doreen Cunningham grabs our hands and takes us with her on a wild journey through danger, motherhood, upheaval and love. Soundings is resonant with the voices of endangered whales and the essential truth that our failures and imperfections are tangled with our unique strengths and beauty. This is a book that grips and doesn't let go."
—Rebecca Schiller, author of A Thousand Ways to Pay Attention
"Beautiful and brave, and startling in its raw emotional honesty."
—Neil Ansell, author of Deep Country and The Circling Sky
"I see in Doreen Cunningham a kindred spirit. Her experience in arctic Alaska is one I recognize, with individuals I know and love. Written with a sure hand and an unfailing eye for the right detail, Cunningham's prose sings. This is a journey well worth taking."
—Debby Dahl Edwardson, author of Blessing's Bead and My Name is Not Easy
"This stunning book blends nature writing of the most urgent kind with precise and poetic observation of human tribulation and the interconnectedness of all things. Fresh, brave and unique."
—Damian Le Bas, author of The Stopping Places
"What a voice! What a book! Pounding with the power of thrashing flukes, shivering with Arctic ice, yet suffused with rare human warmth. A book worthy of its mighty subjects."
—Charles Foster, author of Being a Human
"Soundings stuns with its bravery and lyricism. This is a book to be devoured."
—Ramita Navai, author of City of Lies
"Cunningham's scientific knowledge and gorgeous prose take us on an extraordinary journey as she forges a remarkable connection with these astonishing creatures and issues an impassioned plea for our shared futures. Soundings is a completely unique, unforgettable book."
—Erica Wagner, author of Seizure and Chief Engineer