I love nautical fiction! Perhaps my fondness is due to the common theme of many of these books – man vs. nature or man vs. God. Nautical classic fiction is never dull – our protagonists are shipwrecked, cast overboard, washed ashore on deserted islands, trapped by pirates, or challenged by mighty sea creatures. The sea is not a respecter of persons and those who live on the sea rely on Providence.
I’m recommending my favorites today, not all of which are pictured. Although admirably a classic, I won’t add Moby Dick by Herman Melville to the list, because although I’ve begun the novel on several occasions, I’ve never finished it. (Kudos to those who have!) But it is filled with wonderful characters, language, sermons, and lessons about whales.
I’ll begin my recommendations with those for the middle grade readers and work up.
Captain’s Courageous by Rudyard Kipling is perhaps a little known classic of Kipling’s (best known for The Jungle Book). I’ve read and re-read this little novel because of the wonderful characters who make up the story. Harvey Cheyne Jr. is the spoiled son of wealthy train tycoon, who gets swept off the deck of a steamship and is picked up by the crew of a fishing boat heading out for the season. With no identification or money, he cannot convince the Captain of the fishing vessel to turn around. Harvey is forced to become a working member of the crew. The experience gives him a respect for the sea and the men who make their livelihood from the sea.
Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson is a well-known book full of action and danger. Jim Hawkins, the young son of a inn-owner, gets caught up in a treasure hunt when both his father and an old captain die. He goes aboard ship as a cabin boy, but soon becomes unwilling accomplice to piracy. It’s written as a history, by Jim himself and will draw you in from the first foreboding death scene. The story is grisly, but nothing like today’s Hunger Games or Ender’s Game.
In The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe the protagonists are shipwrecked and the greater part of the books have to do with their survival. These survivors endure storms at sea, fierce animals and hostile people. In both of these classics, God is acknowledged and ultimately revered as sovereign and good despite their circumstances.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham is a wonderful true coming-of-age book about Nathan ‘Nat’ Bowditch, the founder of modern maritime navigation and author of The New American Practical Navigator. Jean Lee Latham introduces us to Nat, who at ten is forced to leave school to help his father, in the cooperage. At twelve he becomes an indentured bookkeeping apprentice. The story shows a young boy with great expectations face obstacles and educate himself. Bowditch teaches himself algebra, calculus, French, Latin, as well as languages spoken at ports they visit all over the world. This is a favorite of mine because of the admirable character and perseverance of the real man, Nathan Bowditch. Wonderful for the homeschooling middle grader.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway can be compared to Moby Dick in the sense it is a tale about a man who goes head to head with a sea creature – in Hemingway’s version, however it is a marlin. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman catches an 18 foot marlin after a draught of 84 days without catching anything. The old man spends much of the novel battling the marlin, and then the sharks who feast on his catch as he heads back to shore. Pathetically, there is little left by the time the old man makes it home. This book is one of Hemingway’s last works and is fairly short at just under two hundred pages. It may be a little slow for middle grade readers, but could be a good read aloud and presents high level vocabulary. The Old Man and the Sea is a good introduction to Hemingway.
Sea Wolf by Jack London is for a more mature reader as it is often described as a ‘psychological adventure novel.’ Humphrey van Weyden, the protagonist, is a literary critic who survives a collision at sea and becomes a hostage of sorts of Captain Wolf Larson. The brutality of the Captain ultimately forces Hump van Weyden to flee the ship to a deserted island. Unfortunately, Wolf Larsen is shipwrecked on the same island. I recommend Sea Wolf for high school readers because it gives us an opportunity to consider how we respond to immorality and brutality.