Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch
Jean Lee Latham (1956)

Read to:  4th - 6th grade
Read independently:  6th - 9th grade

 
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     The book follows Nathaniel Bowditch from early childhood to a successful adulthood.  In the very first paragraph we see that young Nat is a fan of good-luck spells.  He doesn't share any incantations with us but enjoys the idea of lucky things as many young children do.
  It is far from an essential element of the story.

     When we first meet Nat it is 1779, four years into the war.  As a sign of the times there are some incidents of gender bias such as when Nat was told to go get some fire coals from the neighbor and his sister Lizza wanted to help but, "Granny told her, 'That's a man's work.' ..." (p. 7)  And when Nat doesn't want to worry Lizza he reflects that, "Father always said boys took care of girls and women." (p. 8)

     Nat's father was a sea captain who wrecked his ship and now compares himself to Jonah.  Now he is a cooper, a barrel maker.  Nat's brother, Hab, has to stop going to school at twelve to help their dad at work.  Nat loves going to school but is frustrated because the problems are too easy for him,much like my 7y7m old.  Nat's dad requests that the teacher give him more difficult problems.  When Nat solved the first problem quickly the teacher asked who helped him.  When Nat said he did it himself the teacher called him a liar.  "Then he spoke through his teeth.  'You have until tomorrow to tell me the truth.  Tomorrow, if you don't tell me who helped you, I'll give you a whaling you'll never forget!' " (p. 19)  Soon enough the teacher believes in Nat's abilities and even encourages him to go to college.

     In addition to the teacher's initial threat of violence, there is also the threat all the ships at sea face.  There are several references to the guns aboard ship.

     By page 32 Nat has to drop out of school too.  He's initially upset but holds on to the idea that he can go back "when times are better" (p. 32).  After announcing the change of plans, Nat's dad leaves the house for a while.  Nat's mom invites him for a walk.  Along the way Nat reminds himself that "boys don't blubber" (p. 33) and his mom teaches him to look at the stars.  Once they return home Mom and Granny have a conversation indicating that Nat's dad is out getting drunk because he feels so bad about Nat being out of school.  The actual act of drinking is not mentioned but implied along with the specific mention of rum.  Nat's mother is sick from an unspecific illness and dies shortly before Christmas when Nat is ten.  Two years lter his Granny dies.  Two months after that Nat's father puts him into an indentured arrangement so Nat can become a bookkeeper.  An indenture is an unfamiliar arrangement for today's children.  Some might call it an apprenticeship or an internship.  Basically he promises to learn the craft of bookkeeping and then to work for the firm for a number of years in exchange for room and board.

     Since Nat works for a shipping company, in addition to bookkeeping he learns a lot about sailing.  On page 50 there is a great explanation of "logging" the speed of a boat by using a log to calculate and measure.  Nat then thinks he knows "what it means to keep a log" (p. 50) but Sam tells him there's a lot more to it, "...a log is keeping the record of what happens on the voyage.  ...  Because one of the most important things in the record is the speed they have logged; so they call the whole record of what happens the log."  (p. 50-51)  Readers can learn tidbits of this and that too, like the opposite seasons on opposite sides of the equator.

     Nat is a lifelong learner.  For a period of time he enjoyed reading the "Cyclopaedia" and learned a great deal from reading that and other books.  He taught himself Latin by referencing a Latin grammar book and dictionary while comparing an English Bible and a Latin Bible.  Sadly intelligence is not a trade off for safety and tragedy continues to wreak havoc with his loved ones.  His sister dies after falling down the stairs.  The story does well at NOT dwelling on the tragedies. 

     It also does well with some nice bits of philosophical dialogue.  Nat may know languages and math but still has a lot to learn about social justice.  He thinks speaking against the President should be stopped.  Dr. Bentley tells him, "We can't have freedom - unless we have freedom.  ... the right to have our own opinions." (p. 90-91)  On the matter of principals, Mr. Derby, who owns boats arranges crews for them but doesn't sail himself, tells Captain Prince, on page 100, "I'd rather lose any ship I own than to have it become a slaver!  There is no excuse that I'd accept.  Even if a slaver attacked you, over powered you and ordered you to carry a cargo of slaves - even that would be no excuse!"  Nat fit in very well on a ship of principals, when he eventually took to sailing.  He didn't see crew members as just crew, but each one as a human being with the capacity to learn.  He taught anyone who was willing to navigate in a new manner that he invented.  He even created special logarithmic tables so men who weren't strong in math could still learn to navigate.  This resulted in a highly efficient crew, many of whom received promotions onto other ships.

     Nat was passionate about navigation.  At that time, the premier navigation book was written by Moore.  But Nat found several errors in it.  It made him so angry because, "lives depend on these figures!" (p. 120) that he, in his fury, yelled at Captain Prince.  Later he realized, "what a fool he had been to storm at Captain Prince that way.  It wasn't Prince's fault there were errors in Moore's book!  When he saw Prince again he'd apologize." (p. 120)  But when he goes to find him instead he finds a note from Captain Prince encouraging him to find more errors and Captain Prince will get him in contact with the publisher "who was soon to bring out an American edition of Moore". (p. 120)  In the end we see how right Nat is to be angry over the errors, as an error wipes out almost an entire crew including one of Nat's friends / former students.

     Upon returning to land Nat learns that his sister Mary's husband, "David - and his crew - all died of fever!" (p. 123).  His sister seems to handle it well, even thanking Nat for encouraging the relationship reasoning that if Nat hadn't encouraged them she, "would have missed being the happiest woman in Salem - while David was here." (p. 124)  Nat spends several hours recounting his voyage to his sisters.  Than two young family friends stop by and want to hear the stories.  It is obvious to a reader with a little life experience that Elizabeth Boardman, one of the visitors, is interested in Nat but Nat doesn't catch on for a few more years.  (On one of his voyages he goes to visit an observatory and writes to Elizabeth to share his experience, but it still doesn't dawn on him why he thinks of sharing with her.) 

     On that voyage they had a new man in charge of guns (since the old one got promoted because of Nat's teaching).  Lem Harvey was a bit rough, "SPONGE YOUR GUNS!  Where the ... is that sponge!  Ram it down!  Ram it home!  Twist it!  You want to leave a spark in there to blow you to ...  Ready with that cartridge!  What are you doing?  Sleeping on your feet?  //  LOAD!  Get that wad in there you fool.  Ram it home!  Ram it!  //  SHOT YOUR GUNS!  //  Day after day Lem bullied and jeered and cursed the men.  But they learned to handle the guns."  (p. 131)

     Eventually he does marry Elizabeth.  He writes to her of his experiences on his voyages.  Once the Captain teases him about a dangerous situation he had been in saying, "That's one for your letter to Elizabeth!" (p. 181)  Nat says no, because he doesn't want to worry her.  A shipmate cautions him to tell her because, "...women always hear everything sooner or later.  If you skip anything, some friend is sure to say, 'Did your husband ever tell you about the time...' so you tell her first - the way you want her to hear it." (p. 181 - 182)  Sadly, Elizabeth dies while Nat is away at sea.  Nat is quite grief-stricken, especially compared to all the other loved ones who have died throughout his life.  He continues to function fairly well but says several things in various situations that make people uncomfortable.  Elizabeth's cousin, Polly, is very supportive and a great comfort to Nat.

     Eventually Polly becomes his wife and really encourages him to write his own book.  Around the same time, Polly's father and Captain Prince invite nat to invest with them in a sealing ship.  (Seal as in the animal, not glue or fastener.)  Sadly, there sealing ship goes down while the book is still in the proofreading stages.  And those boating accidents were just of people close to Nat.  Imagine all the others unrelated to him.  nat knows, "Every time a ship is lost it gives scientific navigation a setback, too.  Men blame the books.  They've been right to blame them,, sometimes.  There have been errors in the books." (p. 218)  he knows, "It will take a long time to convince them." (p. 218)  Dr. Holyoke agrees saying, "A prophet is without honor in his own country, you know." (p. 218)

     By the last two dozen pages of the book, Nat, who thought he was the only male in his family not built for sailing, becomes a Captain.  On his first voyage as Captain they encounter a hurricane.  Nat astounds the crew by suggesting they outrun it.  The crew is concerned by the 100 mph speed of the storm.  nat explains that is just the rotational speed, not the directional speed.  he likes it to a top.  The crew was enlightened and so was I.  There are also nice examples of bargaining, holding out for a fair price, and following orders.  The end of the book is somewhat suspenseful as Nat returns home through the thickest fog he's ever encountered but it won't cloud his determination to get home by Christmas without risk to the crew.  And after so much personal loss it's nice that there's a happily ever after ending.
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