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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

AUTHOR: Jean Lee Latham 
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
PUBLICATION DATE: May 19, 2003 (first published 1955)
FORMAT: Paperback, 256 pages
GENRE: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Classics
ISBN: 9780618250745
Readers today are still fascinated by “Nat,” an eighteenth-century nautical wonder and mathematical wizard. 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.


I read this classic aloud to my children. It was the winner of the 1956 Newbery Medal.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is the historical fiction novel that is based on the real Nathaniel Bowditch, an amazing mathematician whose brilliance changed the nautical world. Although he dreamed of pursuing his academic dreams, his father could barely afford to feed him and arranged for his nine-year apprenticeship as a bookkeeper to Ropes and Hodges, a ship chandlery. Determined to make the most of it, he spent every spare minute with his nose in a book, often long into the night. When he came across a topic that he didn’t know, he studied everything about it and then wrote his own books. Some of the books that he wrote were about rope-making, sail production, caulking, and navigation. At the age of 16 years, he wrote an almanac that covered the period of 34 years from 1789 to 1823 and included “the regular things,” such as: The sun’s rising, setting, declination, and amplitude. He did not think it was a big deal, saying it was “just mathematics.” He was brilliant, to say the least.

Because all of the great scientific books were written in Latin, he decided to teach himself Latin by using both Latin and English bibles as guides to painstakingly translate word by word. He then translated Isaac Newton’s Principia from Latin to English, which was the best book for studying astronomy.

A man named Dr. Bentley often visited Nat, presumably because he could see Nat’s genius and offered membership into The Salem Philosophical Library. It was a private library started by a group of men, which housed only the best scientific works. They were so impressed with Nat’s intellect that they waived the usual membership fee of 50 pounds. As a member, he would be able to borrow these scientific books for study.

When word came that Ropes and Hodges was to be sold, Nat could hardly contain his excitement. He thought that his time had finally come to be free of his apprenticeship so that he could go to Harvard, but his spirit was dampened when he found out that his apprenticeship was transferred to the new owner.

After his apprenticeship was completed, Nat was offered a position as a Ship’s Clerk aboard a sailing vessel. He took along his books so that he could still study. When he found an error in one of the calculation tables in Moore’s Practical Navigator, he became angry and disgusted because sailors depended on the accuracy of those calculations. He took it upon himself to work each mathematical table in Moore’s book and found over 8,000 errors!

Nat discovered a way to calculate a lunar reading, and he taught all of his shipmates. He felt that they all had the potential to become first mate if only they knew how to navigate! Although the Captain was puzzled as to why Nat would take the effort to do so, he said that never had a crew been less trouble, so he told him to, “Carry on, Mr. Bowditch!” Because not everyone possesses the same academic strengths, he often had to adapt his methods to teach different people. He decided, then, to write his own nautical manual that would: Have the correct calculations so that sailors would not have to rely on Moore’s Practical Navigator, define all nautical terms so that even a layperson could learn, and contain logarithmic tables of all the trigonometric functions so that all a sailor would need to navigate would be a knowledge of addition and subtraction.

Nat’s book, The American Practical Navigator, was first published in 1802. The book has been updated a number of times over the years, but it still is carried on board of every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel!

My children and I really enjoyed this book! Nat possesses such persistence and perseverance, two admirable qualities that I want for my own children. Even though he was not formally educated, it did not make him any less intelligent. He was passionate about his studies, and you would have to be to teach oneself different languages and advanced mathematics! There is quite a bit of sadness throughout the book, as a number of people in Nat’s life die. It seemed that someone died in nearly every chapter! Still, our spirits were buoyed by Nat’s resolve to achieve his goals despite the tragedies that befell him.


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