Stories about real people tend toward polar extremes—either they're immensely interesting or they're terribly dull and boring. The difficulty seems to be in choosing which details to include, whether to invent dialogue, and how much time to spend on historical and cultural context as opposed to the subject's personal life.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch doesn't avoid every pitfall (or shall we say, reef) in its navigation of these things, but it is a fascinating look at an era in ship navigation that changed the way sailing was conducted forever. And before you decide you don't want to read about ship navigation methods, you should know that this book makes the topic interesting to just about anyone.
Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was a real person from Salem, Massachusetts whose mathematical genius led him to develop new ways of determining a ship's position relative to the moon, discover thousands of errors in the existing manuals and almanacs for ship captains and navigators, and teach navigation to many common "before the mast" sailors.
Coming from a long line of ship captains, it was nonetheless uncertain whether Nathaniel (or Nat, as he's called in this book) would ever go to sea himself. He was too small, after all; his brain was stronger than most people's, but his body was weak. On top of that, his father's luck had run out and he'd had to return to his trade as a cooper (barrel-maker), so Nat had to leave school when he was ten and became an indentured apprentice to Ropes and Hodges, a pair of ship's chandlers.
Nat quickly mastered the trade of bookkeeper for the chandlery (a retail store for ships providing food, ropes, tackle, etc.) during the day, and spent his nights learning Latin, studying mathematics, and translating Isaac Newton's Principia into English. As Latham portrays it, young Bowditch gained a reputation during this time as a brilliant young man without even knowing it.
Eventually his indenture ends and Nat is free to go to sea as ship's clerk and second mate to Captain Prince. On the ensuing voyages, Nat perfects his grasp of scientific navigation and invents a method of triangulation using three stars and the moon instead of having to wait for a clear night for the moon to occult behind a single star.
Of particular value is Nat's ability to figure rapidly. Where it took other navigators two days to finish their calculations derived from the moon's occultation, Nat finishes his computations in a matter of minutes, thus allowing the captain to know where his ship is at a given moment, rather than having to rely on knowing where the ship was two days ago.
Eventually Nat becomes a successful merchant captain in his own right, earns an honorary Master's Degree from Harvard (where he'd wanted to go throughout boyhood and youth), gets married, and writes the book on navigation:The American Practical Navigator, otherwise known as the "Sailor's Bible" and still in use today.
Latham tells all this at a breathless pace that will leave few readers bored. Her research into Bowditch's life and character, the sciences of astronomy and mathematics, the art of sailing, and the history of Salem Harbor were truly monumental, and took her many years, and all these things are presented in as interesting a way as possible.
This focus on accuracy and scientific navigation causes her to gloss some important events in his life, however. There are many deaths (including those of Bowditch's parents, his first wife, and his brothers), but all come abruptly and are rushed past. The abruptness probably reflects the nature of death in those days, but the story would be well served by more illumination as to how these things affected Bowditch. We do know he didn't cry, which is sad in its own right.
Nat's love interests and marriages are treated in similar fashion, as well as just about everything that doesn't relate directly to his self-teaching, his career as a clerk, his mathematical endeavors, and his sailing voyages. This makes the story fast-paced, action-packed, and highly interesting on one level, but leaves us feeling as though we don't know Bowditch as well as we might.
While this is certainly a criticism, it isn't a crippling one. The book is very good and very readable, it just isn't really about the man as about his achievements. Latham does have a tendency to use far too many exclamation marks in dialogue and to rush from scene to scene without scene changes, but these grow less and less annoying as the interest of the story builds.
Overall, this is an excellent book about a fascinating period of American history and an important mathematician who gets little notice in the history books or popular culture. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch not only provides insight into the nature of sailing life, it demonstrates the tenacity and focus required to make any epoch-shaping discovery.
And this is probably the real value of the book: throughout the book, people tell Bowditch how smart he is and how he'll be able to go far with his talents and intellect. But the man (who uses the New Testament to learn several languages) keeps as his motivation for all his endeavors the goal of making sailing safer for sailors.
While we don't get to see much of the man Nathaniel Bowditch in terms of emotions, we do get to see him as a selfless and humble man laboring to use his gifts to improve the lives of others. He's a man of clean habits, good morals, loyal love, and excellent work ethic, one that will appeal to readers of all ages looking for such a person to inspire and encourage them.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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