Genre: YA biographical historical fiction
Length: 256 pages
Setting: Salem, late 1700s-early 1800s
Interest: I needed a long audio book for a trip to Gettysburg. Our local library doesn’t have too many long kids’ books, so this was one of the few choices I had.
Summary: We follow the life of Nathaniel Bowditch. He comes from a long line of sea captains, but when his father’s ship went aground close to Salem, he lost his taste for sailing. His father is now a cooper, and life is hard for the family. Mr. Bowditch promises life will get better when the war (the Revolutionary War with England) is over, but it doesn’t. His older brothers ship out on various boats and he’s indentured at age 12 to a chandlery. Nat had dreams of going to Harvard, but now he’s “sailing by ash breeze” and learning all he can from the people surround him. By the time his indenture is over, Nat has taught himself Latin, French, astronomy, and lots of mathematics. While he’s too small to be a sailor, he’s hired to be clerk and second mate. His navigation, math and language skills come in handy on the voyage, and he determines a new way to “take a lunar” and determine a ship’s longitude. He also teaches any men “in front of the mast” who are interested how to navigate. Nat marries Elizabeth, who dies shortly thereafter. He starts working on a new navigation book to replace the error riddled British book all the ships are using, and marries Polly.
Final thoughts: An excellent book that impressed on me the importance of lifelong learning. Nat is forced to leave school at 12, but he continues to learn by talking to experts around him and reading all the books he can get his hands on. It was a great example of how you can learn without anyone telling you what to do if you have the motivation. Nat did not have an easy life, and many of his family members died (mother, grandmother, sister, brother-in-law, wife, brothers), but he persevered through it all. There are a couple of big time jumps in the story line (lines like, “two years later”) so we can cover his life from age six until his 30s. The book fits in quite a bit of history that goes on around him since the book starts in the Revolutionary War and ends as the U.S. is building a navy to fight the British in the War of 1812. I found a surprising amount of humor in the book as well, usually associated with Nat thinking something was “a simple problem of mathematics”, when it really wasn’t simple at all. Finally, if you’re interested in sailing vessels of the early 1800s, you get a taste of life at sea and some of the difficulties of a sailor’s life at that time. It doesn’t have the details a series like Master and Commander has, but it still is a great introduction for younger kids.
Title comes from: Nat’s first captain would often tell him to “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch” whenever he had a new scheme for navigation or teaching the crew.
Awards received: Newbery Award in 1956
Reading challenges fulfilled: None, since this was an audio book.
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