Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Reading Through History: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1955)

Nathaniel Bowditch planned to attend Harvard, but a series of events in his young life sent him on a different path instead. First he was indentured to a chandler, then he worked as a surveyor, and after that he became a supercargo on a merchant ship. All the while, he taught himself the subjects that interested him using books, later making a name for himself as a navigator when he uncovered errors in various navigational books sailors of his day relied upon heavily. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is a fictionalized account of Bowditch's story that won the Newbery Medal in 1956.

This book is a wonderful celebration of learning which provides an excellent role model for self-motivated education. The way Bowditch pursues his education against all odds, even when his dream of attending Harvard becomes impossible is admirable and inspiring. Loving learning for its own sake is something I want to instill in my children, and this book provides the perfect vehicle for explaining what that looks like.

I also appreciate the way the book addresses how very knowledgeable and well-educated people ought to act around those with lesser knowledge or education. This exchange between Nathaniel and Elizabeth on pages 82-83 of the book sums it up well:

"I know. I'm just like a chair you stumble over in the dark." Elizabeth said. "It isn't the chair's fault, but you kick it anyhow."

Nat blinked. "What are you talking about?"

"Your brain. It's too fast. So you stumble on other people's dumbness. And - you want to kick something."

Nat felt his face get hot. "But I shouldn't."

Elizabeth agreed. "No you shouldn't, because even if people are dumb, they aren't chairs, are they? They do have feelings."

I have at least one child who will benefit greatly from understanding this "chair in the dark" analogy as she gets older.

The writing style also makes this book very readable, despite all the technical sailing and navigational jargon. I never felt like I couldn't grasp what was happening and I found it very easy to picture things that happened at sea despite never having traveled on the ocean myself. I had been putting off crossing this book off my list of unread Newbery winners because I didn't expect to like it, but now I'm sorry I waited so long. This was a joy to read.

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