73 pages 2 hours read

Jean Lee Latham

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1902-1995), is the biography of Nathaniel Bowditch (1773 -1838), the sailor and mathematician who created The American Practical Navigator, which is still considered the essential navigational guide for sailors. Jean Lee Latham received the Newbery Medal for Carry On, Mr. Bowditch in 1956. Latham is the author of hundreds of plays, television episodes and children’s books under a variety of pseudonyms. She is best known for her fictionalized biographies written for children and young adults.

This study guide refers to the paperback edition published by Clarion Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Content warning: The story contains a few passing references to the slave trade, which is severely condemned by the characters.

Plot Summary

Nathaniel Bowditch is a mathematically gifted child who hopes he may be able to attend Harvard University and study math. His family lacks financial means, and Nat’s father is forced to indenture him to a ship-chandler where he does the bookkeeping for nine years. During this period, he studies independently, scouring libraries to teach himself a variety of subjects. After his indenture, he spends a summer learning surveying, then signs on as the ship’s clerk and second mate on the Henry under Captain Prince.

On his first voyage, Nat helps to keep the crew busy by teaching them navigation, and he develops a new method of taking reference points. While studying a book of navigation in his free time, he finds errors in the mathematical tables and is outraged because men’s lives depend on the accuracy of these tables.

Captain Prince will be taking a new ship, the Astrea, to Manila, and he wants Nat to go along. The Astrea is armed to defend herself against French privateers. They need someone on board who can train the men on the guns. They hire Lem Harvey, who knows guns, but he’s a troublemaker. Nat and the first officer divide up the watches, and Nat takes Lem on his watch. Lem trains the crew to use the guns, but every time they enter a port, Lem leaves the ship and gets into fights and has to be put in the brig. Captain Prince punishes Lem by taking him off the gun detail. Lem is resentful, and his bad mood rubs off on the rest of the crew. Nat offers to teach the crew navigation. Lem asks if Nat can teach him, and Lem learns quickly. After that, they have no more trouble with him. On the way home, the Astrea springs a leak, and they have to man the pumps day and night all the way back to Salem.

As they are leaving the boat, Nat looks for Elizabeth, a young woman he is attracted to. He sees her waiting for him, but she has another young man with her. The young man, David Farrell, makes it clear to Nat that he is interested in Elizabeth. Nat feels discouraged, but when he learns that David means to ask Elizabeth to marry him, Nat overcomes his shyness and proposes to her first. They are married and live together for two months before Captain Prince asks Nat to sail with him again.

They are anchored at Alicante when Nat receives news that Elizabeth has died of tuberculosis. Elizabeth’s mother and her cousin Polly are awaiting Nat’s return. Elizabeth’s mother welcomes him and asks him to stay at her home. However, Nat’s grief is so strong he jumps at the chance for another voyage with Captain Prince.

The Astrea's new owners in Boston want Prince and Nat to sail her to Batavia to buy coffee. Nat and Captain Prince try to assemble a crew but have to settle for inexperienced and incompetent men. Suspecting the men are planning to jump ship, Captain Prince immediately moves the ship out into open water. At first the crew is resentful, but one of the men, Lupe Sanchez, asks Nat to teach him navigation so he can become a first officer. Nat agrees but only if Lupe convinces the rest of the crew to join him. By the time the Astrea reaches Sunda Strait, everyone on the ship can work a lunar.

When they get back to Boston, Nat declares that he plans never to go to sea again. He intends to write a book of navigation that will ensure no ship need ever be lost due to faulty tables or a crew’s inability to navigate. On his way back to Salem, Nat learns that Lem's ship went aground due to an error in Moore's tables. Then Nat learns that his brothers Hab and William's ship went down, and they are lost as well.

Nat goes home to his little room at Elizabeth's mother's house and sets to work on his book, using the work to numb his grief. Polly Ingersoll comes to stay with her aunt and makes sure Nat has everything he needs to finish his book. The time comes for her to return home to her own family and Nat asks her to marry him. After their marriage, they plan to take a honeymoon, but after a week she tells Nat they can finish their honeymoon after he finishes his book.

Nat finishes his book, and when it receives the approval of the East India Marine Society of Salem, he then spends the next year proofreading it to make sure it is perfect.

Nat is asked to captain a ship, the Putnam, to Sumatra. Nat decides that his book will be more easily accepted if it is known that the author was a ship captain. As he’s preparing for the voyage, he has some free time in Boston and attends commencement ceremonies there where he learns that he has been given an honorary Harvard degree.

The Putnam proves herself to be a good ship. They double the Cape and head north across the Pacific. They survive a typhoon and finally reach Sumatra. They load as much pepper as they can buy, then go on to the Isle of France to finish their cargo with coffee before going home.

They expect to reach Salem in early November, but they encounter bad weather. On Christmas Eve, they find themselves on the coast of Massachusetts shrouded in a blinding fog, but Nat is confident he knows exactly where they are. With his eyes on his watch and the ship’ s compass, he steers them blind around Cape Ann into Salem Harbor, demonstrating that his method of scientific navigation works.