This was a pretty good book, introducing a historical figure (Nathaniel Bowditch) that I wasn’t familiar with, and some great information about navigation. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1955) was also a decent choice for my Massachusetts list of books–not quite so much for the setting itself, as for the history.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the people, history, or geography of the state. Right now we are in Massachusetts.
There are a plethora of historical books for young readers set in Massachusetts, but I wanted something a little different from Johnny Tremain or The Crucible–especially for Salem. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch fits that bill, being a sailing novel set in Salem around 1800.
It wasn’t the best of the Newbery books I’ve read, honestly. Despite the many storms at sea, I somehow still felt becalmed, and I know my 10-year-old would say it was boring–even though he enjoys math. However, it did give some really interesting bits about the mathematics behind nautical navigation, without getting too technical–which must have been an incredibly fine line to walk, considering the (very brief) mentions of trigonometry tables. And it brought to light an interesting problem that we don’t often think about–the very real consequences of errors in printed materials for certain subjects.
Moore’s Practical Navigator had over 8,000 errors identified by Bowditch, including listing the year 1800 as a Leap Year (the centennial years are not), which resulted in perpetuating a superstitious distrust of “book sailing”–navigating using charts listed in books–and, according to Latham, numerous shipwrecks and the deaths of many sailors.
I should also note that Practical Navigator was mentioned in Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman (which I’ll be reviewing shortly), but based on the timeframe of that particular chapter, it was probably Moore’s edition, not Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator (which is still in use, by the way)–however I never would have noticed or made that distinction if I hadn’t read this book about Nathaniel Bowditch.
As far as setting goes, there wasn’t a whole lot. There were several very nice illustrations by John O’Hara Cosgrave, II in the edition I read, which looked very much like the Salem I remember from my time living on the North Shore. And there was a very brief mention of the House of the Seven Gables (built for Captain Turner who was an ancestor of Bowditch), and longer mention of Ropes & Hodges Ship Chandlers (which is included in a National Park Service self-guided Walking Tour of the Great Age of Sail). As someone who has visited Salem, I had no trouble envisioning the setting, but I felt that if I hadn’t been familiar with the setting already, … there just wasn’t much there.
Oh, and one other connection that was interesting. Last year, my son went on a field trip with his school to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, where he stayed overnight aboard the Pilgrim in a Revolutionary War role-playing experience. (It sounded fascinating to an adult like me who’s interested in history, but he and his 4th and 5th grade classmates mostly bonded over how miserable they were–you know, wet, cold, terrible food, hard bunks…) Coincidentally, the privateer that Nat took an interest in was named the Pilgrim! However, the Ocean Institute’s ship was based on an 1825 merchantship written about by Richard Henry Dana, II in Two Years Before the Mast. During the field trip experience, the crew of the Institute’s Pilgrim were delivering supplies to Washington and his army, dodging the British along the way. But it was a fun connection, however faint it turned out to be.
Overall, I’m glad I read it, and math-minded educators and students could probably come up with some fantastic hands-on tie-in activities that would boost the interest. As far as my challenge goes, it was a great reminder that Salem was the maritime center of the Colonies and then the young United States for many, many years, and not only the site of a terrible Puritanical witch hunt in 1692–which is exactly what I wanted from my Salem book choice, so… mission accomplished! Next stop… Cape Cod!