One of my favorite things as a reader is to find an aging book that has worn well. That is certainly the case for this 1956 Newbery winner. It tells the life story of historical figure Nathaniel Bowditch.
Bowditch spent most of his life in the seaport of Salem, Massachusetts. He was only two years old when hostilities began in Lexington and Concord. His father was a sea captain who ran a ship aground, causing a serious case of self-doubt which affected the financial status of the family. As the fourth child of six children, Nathaniel was indentured to a chandler for nine years. This is all excellent background info that is doled out for us a bit at a time, but the most important thing we learn early in the book is that Nathaniel was a self-taught scholar and a mathematical genius. And by the end we find out that the discovery of a new way to take lunars (an early and complex navigational method to establish longitude) and the publication of an accurate navigational guide for sailors, The American Practical Navigator were among his life’s greatest accomplishments. (Inaccuracies in the mathematical tables of earlier guides caused the loss of many men and ships.)
When I picked this up, I thought it was going to be similar to Johnny Tremain–historical fiction from a Colonial or Revolutionary time period. I didn’t realize Nathaniel was historical until late in the book. And I certainly didn’t know the whole book would center on mathematics or I might not have been as keen to pick it up. I would have missed a real treat.
I am in awe of the amount of research Ms. Latham had to do for this book, historical, nautical, astronomical, biographical. There is a tremendous amount of context we pick up as we read through Nathaniel’s life. Yet the focus is ever on Nathaniel. She utilizes several nautical sayings to good metaphorical effect, using them again and again to ground the story: “Anchor to windward” means that while the breeze is threatening to blow you out to sea, you drag an anchor on the windward side to hold your ship in place. Nathaniel’s father “lost his last anchor to windward” when his wife died. Another is “sail by ash breeze,” which means to row when the wind dies. Nathaniel wanted so badly to attend Harvard as a young child, but his family’s financial state forced him into an indenture. He took advantage of his evenings, however. He worked hard to teach himself astronomy, mathematics, and navigation on his own, learning several languages along the way to study important works by foreign masters that had never been translated into English. He sailed his life by ash breeze. Eventually, we see the amazing results of his efforts.
Two things I did not care for in the book, the second an effect of the first. Number one, time passes so quickly, sometimes years on a page and often with tiny one- or two-paragraph anecdotes in between that sometimes feel relevant and others times seem ill-placed. I suppose the rapidity is inevitable in the short pages of a middle-grade biography. Number two, the book never makes solid emotional connections, and I feel that could have been done better. There are tons of silly deaths in this book. It’s accurate to the time period. His mother dies young. His teenage sister falls down the stairs and dies a few days later. All of his brothers die while sailing. These were important parts of Nat’s life that must be included, but the rapid passage of time causes them to feel flippant. They make very little emotional impact on the hero or the reader.
But the pros heavily outweigh the cons in this magnificent, time-honored classic. If you enjoy historical fiction, if your class is studying early America, if your kids have an interest in sailing ships or in navigation, if you’re trying to teach your grandkids the importance of learning mathematics or to simply value education, this is a superb resource. Chances are, they’ll forget they’re supposed to be learning. Two thumbs way, way up.