Friday, July 8, 2011

"Carry on, Mr. Bowditch" - book review by Robert Steven Mack

Carry on Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham is the story of the life and times of Nathanial Bowditch, and how he discovered a whole new way of marine navigation. Growing up during the post revolutionary war period, young Nathaniel Bowditch seems to be plagued by hard luck; while his poverty keeps his family on their toes, his own smallness in height keeps him on his. Nevertheless, Nat is an exceptionally bright youngster and has an astounding knack for mathematics that not even his stern by-the-stick teacher or his closest siblings Hab and Lizza can believe. His family’s bad luck continues as his mother and grandmother die from illness too expensive for the Bowditch family to cure. Despite his setbacks his little work-a-holic mind continues to work even faster in hopes of someday going to Harvard. All hopes are shattered when he is forced to quit school and is indentured for nine years at the age of twelve.

In his nine years of book-keeping he continues to study hard and teaches himself Latin and French in order to read Newton's Principia. Being the son of a sea captain, he finds himself aboard the "Henry: under the command of the understanding Captain Prince. It was aboard the Henry that he discovered a whole new way of navigation using what he called "sky marks." While Nat uses Moore's navigational book as a reference, others don't believe in book sailing and he can understand why when he finds errors in the tables of Moore's book. The worst of that is that those miscalculations can cost sailors lives and do. After finding eight thousand mistakes in Moore's book, he gets fed up and devotes his time to writing a book of his own known as The American Practical Navigator.

Nat Bowditch as a character is a young mathematical genius, whose prodigy gives him a tendency to get angry when people don't understand him. He is a workaholic and never stops once he has an idea. He was devastated when he had learned that his closest sister, Lizza, had fallen down the stairs during a party and had died. He married Elizabeth Boardman whom he spent happy times with but suffered through her death when she died while he was on one of his voyages. He was shocked to hear that his brothers Hab and William were lost at sea due to book sailing. Mary Bowditch, his high spirited sister often enjoyed hearing of his journeys, the only time he did not enjoy talking to her was when he was faced with the painful duty of comforting her on the death of her sea-faring husband, David. His father Captain Bowditch had been in command of a ship that had been wrecked by the rocks at sea ruining his career. Nat later married Polly Indergall, Elisabeth’s most trusted friend.

Despite his success, he is always held back by those who do not believe in what is know as book sailing. His brothers Hab and Willaim were both victims of incorrect graphs and charts, so was his gruff friend Lem Harvey(at least that's what they thought). The world’s most renowned marine navigation book at the time was also the worst as Nat found over eight thousand mistakes in the tables, graphs and charts, which he blamed on those who did the problems and did not check and recheck the problems. This prompted Nat to write his own book. Still, many people doubted that book sailing was the answer to their problems at sea. Nat Bowditch was so good at figures that he could solve any problem faster than he could write his own signature, and it was his amazing intellect and way with figures that enabled him to prove to the world what they could do.

Nat suffered many set backs and heart breaks during his career but he knew that the important thing was to keep on going no matter what. Indeed, it was Nat’s propensity to overcome adversity that comes out as one of the strongest themes in the book. Nat also realized that men depended on his figures and he knew that, and so another strong theme in the story is Nat’s commitment and duty to those men not to let them down. Nat felt that it was for the greater good of sailing. A lot of people did not believe in him, but did let them down. Fortunately he did not give up maintaining a positive attitude and all his hard work paid of.

I enjoyed reading this book top to bottom. I can definitely identify with Nat's need to get things done (in other words I'm a work-a-holic). And I can certainly say that this book held on to me and would let go. This is an insightful, joyful, heartwarming adventure epic about a guy named Nathaniel Bowditch. Enjoy the little screenplay I wrote, produced, and filmed:

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

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