Title: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch
Author: Jean Lee Latham
Recommended Ages: 10 and up
Star Rating: ★★★★★
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When my mother first purchased a copy of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch I had not yet formed a passion for children’s literature. So I glanced at it, said it looked interesting, and found my way back to Dickens.
Now, a year and a half later, when I found Carry On, Mr. Bowditch at a neighbour’s garage sale I was ecstatic! I recognized it as the book my mother had purchased in the days of my indifference to Newberys, and was ashamed to recall my neglect of it. I hastened to repair that by devouring it.
Nat Bowditch is from a family of sailors. Although but a lad, he has already developed a passion for mathematics; he wishes to further his education by studying at Harvard. But the American War for Independence is underway and times are hard; Nat’s father cannot afford to send him to school. He instead presents Nat with papers which, if he signs them, will make him the indentured apprentice of Ropes and Hodges, a ship Chandlery. Nat’s indenture lasts for nine long years, years during which Nat yearns for his freedom but which he determines to profit by. Through extensive note-taking and studying he learns the academics of navigation, sailing, and astronomy. He also teaches himself Latin, French, and Spanish. After his apprenticeship is over, he ships on the Henry as clerk and second mate. He there learns what years of reading could never teach him; the roll of the waves, acts of sailing which he has studied but never lived. On his journey, Nat’s love for mathematics prompts him to check the figures of Moore’s Navigator, the navigational authority of its times. To his surprise and chagrin he discovers several errors in the computations. Just how large of a genius does Nat possess? And where will his love of mathematics take him?
I loved the solid principles taught in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.
“Nat bit his lips. If only he hadn’t gone to sleep last night…. But he musn’t worry Lizza. Father always said boys took care of girls and women.” [pg. 8]
Nat’s brother, Hab, teaches Nat that, “Boys don’t blubber.” [pg. 26]
For a great part of the book, Nat ‘sails on ash breeze’. The concept of ash breeze is best explained by Sam Smith when he says,
“When a ship is becalmed – the wind died down – she can’t move – sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her. Or they’ll carry out anchors and heave them over, and the crew will lean on the capstan bars and drag the ship up to where the anchors are heaved over. Oars are made of ash – white ash. So – when you get ahead by your own get-up-and-get – that’s when you sail by ash breeze’.” [pg. 48]
One of my favorite themes in the story was Nat’s benevolence in bestowing his hard earned knowledge on his companions. Nat knows that the dividing point between a good sailor and a commanding sailor is knowledge of navigation. So, he teaches every crew that he ships with the basic principles of navigation, enabling them to find higher, better paying positions.
And then there was the humor. Although this book was not intended to be comedic, I found myself giggling over several different passages. Some are humorous; some are incisive.
In this scene Dr. Prince and Elizabeth are exchanging appraisals of Nat in his presence.
Dr. Prince smiled at the youngster. “Elizabeth, maybe you can figure this out for me. Why do you think Nat reads Latin?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes gravely from one side to the other. “It’s his brain, don’t you think? I mean – it’s awfully restless. He probably reads Latin to keep it quiet. The way girls stitch samplers, you know.”
Dr. Prince blinked. When Elizabeth had gone, he started out, too, still shaking his head. [pg. 74]
Elizabeth returns to the shop later to purchase a gift for her father.
Nat studied. “Parallel rulers might be nice.”
“Do you suppose Father has them already?”
Nat exploded “Of course! What sort of sailing master do you think he is?” Then he apologized quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bark at you.”
“I know. I’m just like a chair you stumble over in the dark,” Elizabeth said. “It isn’t the chair’s fault, but you kick it anyhow.”
Nat blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“Your brain. It’s too fast. So you stumble on other people’s dumbness. And – you want to kick something.”
Nat felt his face get hot. “But I shouldn’t.”
Elizabeth agreed. “No you shouldn’t, because even if people are dumb, they aren’t chairs, are they? They do have feelings.”
“Lizza was right,” Nat said. “You do have eyes in the back of your heart.” [pgs. 82-83]
In this scene Nat receives a lesson in jargon from his captain.
“I wonder who named this the Cape of Good Hope?” Nat said.
Prince growled, “The Portygee explorers named it right – Cape Tempestuoso – the Cape of Storms. But I guess their king didn’t like the sound of that. After all, he was interested in trade with the east. So he changed it to Cape of Good Hope.”
Nat said, “I suppose Hope fits – in a way. You can always hope you’ll get around it.”
“Double it, Mr. Bowditch!” Prince roared. “You don’t get around a cape! You double it! You – you – lubber!”
“Aye, aye, sir.” [pg. 113]
I appreciated this bit of wisdom from Mr. Bentley.
“Human problems aren’t like mathematics, Nat. Every problem doesn’t have just one answer; sometimes you get several answers – and you don’t know which is the right one.” [pg. 91]
In the first chapter, six-year old Nat wants to work a good luck spell by jingling silver coins in his pocket under a new moon. However, he sleeps through the new moon and never works the spell. This was more to show Nat’s early fascination with astronomy than a propensity to witchcraft.
Nat’s school teacher yells at him several times when he thinks that Nat is being impertinent. He later learns that Nat was in earnest and they become friends.
Lizza Bowditch rolls her eyes at something her mother says.
Children are not likely to notice the subtlety of my next caution but I should like to make it just the same.
‘Someone tapped on the door, and Monsieur Bonnefoy entered, smiling. “I have a confession to make, Captain Prince. I was eavesdropping through the skylight. Not by intention. I just happened to be there, and could not help hearing. Monsieur Bowditch – he has the magnificent spirit! It is worthy of the French Revolution! Libery Equality! Fraternity!”
Captain Prince roared, “What do you mean – the French Revolution? Who started this business of rebelling against kings? We did! We started it in 1775! It took you French until 1789 to get around to it!” Then, for the first time since the Henry had sailed, Nat saw a twinkle in Prince’s eyes.’ [pg. 112]
I don’t believe that it was done maliciously, but I disliked this equating of the Reign of Terror to the American War for Independence. The two were instigated by entirely different philosophies; the War for Independence by the idea that no man could rule where God’s law gave him no jurisdiction, and the Reign of Terror by a lust for anarchy.
My final caution; as this book is a biographical account of a man’s life, it is inevitable (and praiseworthy) that he should find a wife. In one scene before they are married Elizabeth (his future wife) kisses him good-bye. He is bewildered and makes no attempt to ascertain her feelings before boarding his ship for a year-long journey. When he returns, they attend a corn-shucking event together. He peels a red ear and rather embarrassedly kisses her. Immediately thereafter he proposes and is accepted.
Conclusion. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is one of the more deserving out of the Newbery Medal Winners. It is a magnificent – and true – tale of a dedicated, persevering, self-governed man that is told with charm, humor, and vivacity. Buy it on Amazon here.