Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (1956)

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is one of those books that occupy the nebulous space between fiction and nonfiction -- the "lightly fictionalized biography" or "documentary novel." It's a genre that I don't think about all that often, but it has a long and bright history, from books such as Amos Fortune, Free Man (the 1951 Newbery winner), on to more recent titles, like No Crystal Stair (2012) and Africa Is My Home (2013).

Our hero in Jean Lee Latham's 1956 Newbery winner is Nathaniel Bowditch, a Massachusetts polymath whose book The New American Practical Navigator (1802) revolutionized the science of navigation. We meet Bowditch when he is only six years old, and follow his life through to his return from his last sailing voyage in 1803. This choice of time frame allows Latham to focus on Bowditch's navigation and nautical exploits; the second act of his life, in which Bowditch published a number of scientific articles, and worked as a noted actuary and investment manager, goes unremarked upon. I've complained before about biographical works that only cover part of their subjects' life (looking at you here, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!), but I think Latham made the right choice; the narrative arc comes to a logical conclusion at the point where Latham elects to end the story.

I didn't really know what to expect from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch -- it's one of those more obscure Newbery titles, and I knew almost nothing about it except for the title. It started a bit slowly, but I ended up very much enjoying this one. Bowditch is a strong, interesting protagonist, and although most of the secondary characters don't get much screen time, they come across effectively enough. The setting also works well; I felt the excitement of Salem and Boston in the early days of the United States as I read. I was sorry to see Carry On, Mr. Bowditch end.

I will confess that I cringed during the descriptions of Bowditch's interactions with the Malay people in Sumatra; I have no doubt that it's an accurate depiction of how the American sailors thought about their trading partners, but given that nowadays, we'd call that "racist," it's a bit awkward to read. I've read much worse from the time period, however; even if those passages in the book would be frowned upon now, I certainly wouldn't call Latham a bigot in the context of her era.

Three Honor books were named in 1956, the best known of which is probably The Secret River, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The most famous eligible book that was shut out of that year's awards is almost certainly Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. Harold is a classic, but I don't think it works at all without the illustrations, and I wouldn't have supported it for the Newbery over Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.


  1. I read Mr Bowditch about a week ago and was surprised to really enjoy it. The cover art of the edition I read reminded me of The Dark Frigate which made me a bit reluctant to read it. It seems the old adage is true in the case of this book, as I was definitly prejudging it by it's cover and I was pleasantly surprised. I have read 3 out of the 4 books from 1956 and this one has been my best read of that year.

    I have not read any of the Newbery's in anything like chronological order. So this exercise of thinking about them decade by decade has made me think about the development of children's literature and the changing tastes of the judges. The winners and honour books from the 50s are very different from those of the 20s,which is not at all unexpected. By the time we get to the 60s and 70s children's literatue is vastly different,and to my taste vastly more readable, than that of previous decades.

    Many of the books from the 50s I have read so far have been good reads. I still have many more from this decade to go, I have had some trouble finding many titles, but I think my favouite so far is The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. I have read this book to my children and grandchildren it really has stood the test of time. It is a great book for reading to children who are just learning to read. Another favouite is Charlotte's Web (of course) which always makes me cry. The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Old Yeller also are way up there with my favourite books of the decade.

    1. I've had very much the same reaction to this chronological exercise! It's fascinating to get a sense of how children's literature and critical opinion about it shifts and develops.

      I've never read The Bears on Hemlock Mountain! I'll have to check that one out. Of the 1950s honorees that I have read, Charlotte's Web and Ginger Pye are personal favorites. I also have fond memories of Amos Fortune, Free Man, although I haven't read that one in years.

    2. Charlotte's Web and The Bears on Hemlock Mountain are 2 of the few Newberys that I read to my children when they were small and have quite recently read to my grandchildren. I am currently reading Because of Winn Dixie to the second of my grandchildren.

      Reading a book aloud is quite different to reading the book to yourself or even gifting the book to a child to read it for themselves. This is truely a shared experience which is hard to beat, but it also gives the reader a totally different perspective of the book. I think this is why The Bears on Hemlock Mountain is certainly amongst my favourite Newberys. It is a simple story well told. When I read it with my granddaughter it captivated her so much that I read it to her in one sitting. I think this is reflective of how well this little book from the 1950s has stood the test of time.