Book Review: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

A couple months in to school, and this is the third book I am assigning for my middle grades Language Arts class which is also studying Modern History. The first two books were a moderate win, so I thought it would be too much to hope for another success, and yet…

Cover image from amazon.com.

This book was even better than Calico Captive, which I enjoyed with some small reservations. This book, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, is going down as one of my favorite kids’ chapter books. I just really enjoyed reading it and it transported me to such an interesting yet light and airy place. I mean, the plot was full of struggle and Nat Bowditch—a historical person—had plenty of pain in his life. And yet, some writers just write with this combination of clarity and (inner) visual space so that the reader feels comfortable and happy there in the book. I find that this is a style that is difficult to come by and that I really, really enjoy it. So I will likely be coming back to this book.

Here’s the deal: it’s another one of those historical novels that I’ve been reading so much of lately (largely in the middle grades age group). It is the story of Nat Bowditch, the very real and little-known American innovator, a genius who used his math brains in the area of navigation. He was born into a town and family that were connected to the ocean and sailing. His family went through a lot of loss when he was growing up, and with a young America at war, Nat ended up losing his freedom and his dreams of higher education. But that’s not the end of the story, and Nat, with his buoyant personality and amazing mental abilities (not to mention a supporting cast of kind and interesting neighbors and sailors), couldn’t stay down for long. The story follows him from his childhood into his middle age. It covers a lot of ground, which, if it were a novel, would make the reader feel like it could have concentrated more. But because it is a biography of sorts, it makes sense to follow a particular dream all the way over a couple decades.

I fear I’m getting you too excited for this book, whereas I expected nothing and then was surprised by the story, the story-telling, and the real-life character. It is highly nautical and also celebrates math. Nat Bowditch almost reminds me of someone with mild Asperger’s. He’s just so specialized and focused. But this book has growth, it has family, it has character (though some of the ideas are a little old-fashioned, like boys shouldn’t cry), it even has romance. I enjoyed being with Nat, being in the spaces that he inhabited, and seeing life aboard a ship of the period without a dark, seedy, pirate tale. Bowditch seems like a good role model in a middle grades novel that is very well written.

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