This historical, coming-of age book by Jean Lee Latham is published by Houghton Mifflin and is written for kids ages 10 to 14. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Feeling the financial impact of war and death on his family, former sea captain Habakkuk Bowditch of old Salem indentures his son, Nat, to a shipping company. Nat has an amazing head for mathematics. His teacher believes he could attend Harvard. But his apprenticeship requires him to work for his employers until he's 21, too old for school. Despite his circumstances, Nat takes every opportunity to learn about navigation and shipping. He goes on to write books, teach crews how to figure important sailing calculations and serve as captain of a ship.
Grandma says it's not Christian to waste food. Nat learns several languages, including Latin, Spanish and French, by using the Bible (and specifically, the first chapter of John) as a translation tool. A kind and scholarly clergyman, Dr. Bentley, teaches and encourages Nat.
After Nat's father wrecked his ship, it "took the tuck out of him" (according to Grandma). The text hints at Habakkuk's tendency to turn to alcohol in troubled times. Nat's employers, the captain under which he served and Dr. Bentley all trust and respect Nat, giving him freedom and resources to teach himself and others the ways of the sea. As an authority figure himself (while serving in high positions on voyages), Nat spends most of his spare time teaching the crew members lessons that could help them improve their own stations in life.
Other Belief Systems
As a child, Nat is convinced that a spell — jingling change in his pocket under a full moon — will bring good luck to his family. Nat's father gives up sailing because he believes he'll bring bad luck to any crew he joins.
Nat is kissed goodbye before his voyage.
Newbery Award, 1956
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Nat, a real figure in American history, is considered the founder of modern maritime navigation. He always finds a way to learn what he wants to know, despite his circumstances.
What are some ways a person can improve or be educated, even without a lot of money or time?
Can a person ever be too old to learn?
- Nat frequently points out that sailing has everything to do with mathematics.
What are some careers today that require a strong knowledge of math?
- What talents has God given you that you feel you should develop?
- How could you use your skills to teach others?
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