Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham, was published in 1955 by Houghton.
Nathaniel Bowditch grew up in a sailor’s world—Salem in the early days, when tall-masted ships from foreign ports crowded the wharves. But Nat didn’t promise to have the makings of a sailor; he was too physically small. Nat may have been slight of build, but no one guessed that he had the persistence and determination to master sea navigation in the days when men sailed only by “log, lead, and lookout.” Nat’s long hours of study and observation, collected in his famous work, The American Practical Navigator (also known as the “Sailors’ Bible”), stunned the sailing community and made him a New England hero.
There are so many historical events and figures I wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for literature. Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea taught me about the wreck of the Kaiser Wilhem, and that one review copy I read taught me about Dunkirk. I learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the harsh child labor and factory work in England, Stalin’s “cleansing” of the Baltic states, and many more things. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, continues that tradition, with its story of Nathaniel Bowditch.
Nathaniel Bowditch wrote The American Practical Navigator, a book that is still used on Navy ships today. He stopped going to school when he was ten, but taught himself calculus, Latin, French, and Spanish. He figured out a new way of calculating navigation using the moon and the stars, and taught it to the crews he sailed with. He found many mistakes in the current navigation book of the time and wrote his own book as a result. He translated books that helped developed astronomy in America. Basically, Nathaniel Bowditch was an awesome person that for some reason I’d never heard of before.
I’m not sure how much of Latham’s account is fictionalized and how much is reality, but at least the bones of it are grounded in history. The book is actually quite humorous, which is needed because of all the death that occurs. I think maybe ten named people die in this book, as well as a few members of the “faceless masses.” Seriously, Bowditch had a ton of tragedy in his life—reminiscent of the dangers of that day in occupation, as well as in the lack of life-saving medicinal discoveries. And while there’s certainly enough death to be concerned about younger readers, it’s a good opportunity to discuss the perils of the day and why people back then so often died of “consumption” (aka tuberculosis).
It’s also a great book to emphasize how a lack of education doesn’t necessarily spell doom. I mean, Bowditch had no schooling past the age of 10, yet he taught himself calculus and four different languages. Self-teaching and self-motivation are huge factors in educational/intellectual success.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, while written simply, is a wonderful portrait of a man who before this I’d never even heard about. The eighteenth century was a great time of discovery and this book highlights a little of the enthusiasm and determination that carried inventors and discoverers through all life’s hardships to better the lives of the people around them.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
He whistled while he found his slate and pencil. He whistled until he was out of the house and up the street. Then the whistle died.
All the way to Mr. Walsh’s house Nat’s feet seemed to beat out the words: Nine years…nine years…nine years…
Two or three months to study bookkeeping. Then no more school—ever.
Indentured: Nathaniel Bowditch.