There are few Newbery novels about seafaring. This biography is only tangentially about ships during the Age of Sail, for Nathaniel Bowditch is first and foremost a scientist, although he wouldn’t have used that term. He was a math prodigy who wanted to know everything. Denied the opportunity to attend school when apprenticed to a ship’s chandler at the age of 12, he taught himself Latin, French, Spanish, algebra, astronomy, navigation, and so on. He gobbled books the way a starving dog gobbles a handout — in huge chunks, barely taking time to chew — and found great pleasure in checking the math of every book that had figures. Upon finding thousands of errors in the sailing reference manual of the day, Moore’s The New Practical Navigator (a British publication), the appalled Bowditch set out to write his own, which he proudly titled The American Practical Navigator.
Bowditch (born 1773) was raised in Salem, Massachusetts. His father and all of his brothers were sailors. He himself spent several years on ships, eventually working his way to captain of one. He saw battle, rough seas, typhoons, and the often frightening port scenes in places like Mandalay and Java. Latham spares no details about the hard life of sailors. Bowditch’s father is ruined by the loss of his ship, and nearly all of Bowditch’s brothers die at sea, as well as many of his friends.
There may not be enough action here to please the most ardent adventure fans, but Latham knows her sailing lingo — every phrase sounds right (although, true confession, I wouldn’t know a yardarm from a hawser), and Bowditch’s determination to learn everything is inspiring. At one point, after winning over an unruly crew by teaching them navigation skills, he wonders if learning can change people: If you teach a man to use his mind, is nothing beyond his reach?
PS: For wonderful illustrations of sailing ships, see Holling Clancy Holling’s Seabird. All parts are labeled.
Newbery Fun Fact: The other seafaring winners are Dark Frigate (1924) and The Slave Dancer (1974).