Friday, June 3, 2016

Canadian Living Book Review: Into Unknown Waters

Part of my process of finding Canadian living books is to search my library's online database for any title related to the subject I wish to have a living book about. Of course, this results in a huge range of books for many different age levels. But I reserve them all in the hopes of finding a gem. This week I found one!

Into Unknown Waters: John & Sebastian Cabot by Eric N. Simons is part of a series entitled "People from the Past" edited by Egon Larsen. This series was intended to "bridge the gap" between overly simplified biographies and overly detailed accounts written by and for academic historians. This book is out of print, published in 1964 by Dobson Books, but you may be able to find it used or at your library.

One of my "living books" pet peeves is the way people seem to assume that you must turn to historical fiction in order to make Canadian history come alive. I have nothing against historical fiction, especially when it is well-written and well-researched, but living books come in a much greater variety. This is why I appreciated the intent of the "People from the Past" series:
"...while introducing dramatic and colourful figures the authors have a wonderful opportunity of filling in the whole background of a particular time and its political, cultural, economic conditions and developments, without having to introduce fictitious characters or adventures--for truth is more exciting than fiction, and the reader can rely on the historical authenticity of the story."
As I hope to review many Canadian living books over the next years, I will ask and answer specific questions in each case that assess how these books can be classified as "living books" as Charlotte Mason defined them. (For more on how to recognise a living book, see "What's In a 'Living Book'" by Emily Kiser, or listen to A Delectable Education podcast episode 7: "How to Recognize  Living Books.")

Is it written by a single author with a passion for his subject?

Simons' imagination was clearly captured by the story of the Cabots. This is evident from the very first page, where he begins by telling about seeing a ship in full sail one day:
"Suddenly into sight a big sailing ship came, her sails, golden and convex, billowing in the wind --a gallant and now rarely experienced sight. Beautiful were her sweeping lines and curving canvas...
There she was, that day in May, 1961, and hundreds of years ago, there, too, sailed many ships like her, at the mercy of wind and wave, with starvation, disease, fire, piracy and shipwreck ever threatening disaster. In May, 1497, in particular, a ship, which had left Bristol on the 2nd, could have been the Atlantic, a small speck in a vast circle of water, going out into the unknown, not for days, but for months."
His interest and enthusiasm are contagious, and that is something I look for in a living book.

Does it have ideas, not just facts?

The example quoted above: "a small speck in a vast circle of water, going out into the unknown, not for days, but for months" is a good example of the kind of ideas that abound in this book. The words create a picture in your mind's eye, a feeling of what it might be like to be an explorer. Yes, this book aims at being as historically accurate as possible, but it is by no means a dry recitation of facts, and it certainly never dumbs anything down.

(One thing to note about the facts: scholarship has advanced a bit regarding the route of John Cabot's first voyage, and you may want to compare the map on the inside cover with one in a more current book. However, Cabot's route is still a subject of considerable controversy, including the question of where he first landed...Cape Breton or Newfoundland?)

Is it well-written?

The writing evokes vivid pictures in your imagination. I enjoyed the way Simons wove relevant historical details into the story. On the other hand, I sometimes wished the sentences weren't quite so long, and that some of the excessive commas were removed.

Is it inspiring?

The author highlights the courage of the explorers by comparing it with that of modern astronauts:
"Awed by the courage and determination of men who, calmly entering space capsules, set out to explore the universe, we easily forget that there was a time in history when equally intrepid men embarked in tiny craft to explore the unknown waters of our globe. Their stories deserve to be told and told again, because it is difficult today to imagine the fascination and wonder once aroused by the great rolling waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and equally difficult to appreciate that their knowledge of what they were to meet was as small as that of the first astronauts of the present age." (p. 10)
On the other hand, Sebastian Cabot, whose explorations were in South America and later in Russia, is truthfully portrayed as a less than virtuous character: greedy, deceitful, conniving, and despicable. His intrigues take up a good portion of the second half of the book.

For what age group would this book be a good fit?

This is a difficult question for me, as my eldest son is only going on eight. As with most living books I've come across, this book would be interesting for all ages, though parts might be omitted for younger children. There is also the tangled web of Sebastian Cabot's life to consider.

In terms of Canadian history, the portion of the book on John Cabot is of course the one of the most interest. While the book covers both John and Sebastian Cabot, there is little or no overlap between their stories. Chapters 1 and 2 are about John Cabot (pages 1-57), and chapters 3-8 (pages 58-181) are about Sebastian Cabot. It would be easy to use just the first part of the book if a short and interesting biography of John Cabot is desired for Canadian history.

Personally, I think I would consider using the first portion of the book (on John Cabot) for grades four or five and up. The rest of the book might be more suitable for older students, perhaps grades seven and up.

Please leave me a comment if you have used this book in your homeschool. I'd also love to hear of any other biographies of John Cabot you can recommend!