The main character - Nat Bowditch - is an earnest, hardworking, exceptionally intelligent boy who comes of age during the story, which takes place from the late 1700's through the early 1800's.
Nathaniel has a difficult life in Salem, Massachusetts. His father, Habbakuk (!!), is a cooper who "lost his tuck" (i.e., his ambition; he became depressed) when his ship foundered on a lee shore (see where having read O'Brian comes in handy? I know all about the perils of losing your anchor to windward).
There are a lot of children in the Bowditch family and not much money, and Nat is forced to give up school, which he loves, and work for his father and then as an apprentice (indentured for nine years!) to a ship's chandlery, "where he kept books and sold marlinspikes, belaying pins, and hemp rope" (p. 66).
There are many family deaths (which really happened and was not uncommon in this period in history), but Nat's reaction to the tragedies is curiously flat. The narrative concerning the romances in Nat's life is similarly unemotional and frankly, rather tedious.
Latham makes the story much more interesting when she describes Nat's love of mathematics and his desire for knowledge, and his passion for teaching navigation to everyone on the fo'c'sle*. It is classic story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, or to use the nautical term (which Latham never fails to do**), sailing by ash breeze:
Sam said, "Bah! Only a weakling gives up when he's becalmed! A strong man sails by ash breeze!" (p. 47)I think that this book was written mainly for boys, but I'm afraid that its lack of action and the overt moralizing may turn many of them off today. Yes, it's laudable that Nat wants to be a Harvard man more than anything else, and that he can learn any language, including Latin, with just a dictionary, a grammar, and a New Testament, but I don't think this will lead a lot of kids to identify with Nat.
..."When a ship is becalmed - the wind died down - she can't move - sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They'll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her....Oars are made of ash - white ash. So - when you get ahead by your own get-up-and-get - that's when you 'sail by ash breeze'." (p. 48)
And there are parts of the story where there is action - how could there not be action, on a tall ship doubling the Horn at the turn of the 19th century? - but Latham doesn't make you feel the exhaustion of several days of "all hands on deck" with wet clothes, cold food, and foul air belowdecks the way some authors do (not just Patrick O'Brian! read Tony Horwitz's description of sailing in the beginning of Blue Latitudes). When I read about someplace so different, I don't want to see a dispassionate list of what Nat endured. I want to taste the hardtack, weevils and all. Paula Fox did a much better job of this in The Slave Dancer (the depressing 1974 winner).
I liked the classic illustrations by John O'Hara Cosgrave II, but I really wanted a map. A trip to the island of Bourbon was an important part of the story, but until they mentioned that it had been re-named Réunion, I had no idea where they were (near Nantucket? by Hawaii?). And frankly, I only knew where Réunion was because I'd read The Mauritius Command (yes, yes, O'Brian again). If kids are reading this (and I know it's a favorite for some homeschoolers), then a map with Réunion, Madeira, Cadiz, and Batavia is a really good idea.
This online biography of Nathaniel Bowditch by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society filled in some of the questions I had after I finished the book. What happened to Nat's father? What did Nat do after his last voyage? How much of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch was true? (This last question only partially answered, of course). It was undeniably cool to read that a copy of Bowditch's The New American Practical Navigator is still carried on board every commissioned vessel in the United States Navy.
* fo'c'sle=forecastle, or the living quarters in the bow of a ship where the crew is housed. In the book, Nat is quietly egalitarian, teaching the entire crew the arcane arts and science of navigation. I have no idea if this is an invention of Latham's, or something that Mr. Bowditch was actually known for doing. It would be nice to know one way or the other; this is something I really don't like about these children's biographies.
**"You know an anchor won't hold if the cable's too short. A man always needs another shot in the locker" (p. 170). Then there's living by "log, lead, and lookout", always "having a good anchor to windward", "swallowing the anchor", "splicing the main brace", and a lot more. I have to say some of these were the best part of the book for me, but I think it's unlikely most other readers will agree.