This based-on-a-true-story Newbery winner has a light, breezy tone and engaging writing style. It is clearly a product of the fifties, as anyone familiar with books (particularly books for boys) written during that period can attest. It has the breathless rush of action so often found from that period. The message that hard work and self-education will create success is right on the edge of being heavy-handed, but luckily never quite leaps off the cliff. There is also a depth to the characters, so that we see Nat grow from a restless child to a responsible young man.
As with many books from the fifties, there are some cultural hiccups that modern readers will likely pick up on. Nat is told that “boys don’t blubber” because they need to “protect women” and keep girls from worrying. (Ironically, and I suspect unnoticed even by the author, it is often the women who do their best to keep Nat from worrying. Polly purposefully puts on a good face despite her concern over his travels, Mary goes out of her way to reassure him when her husband dies, etc.) The references to the inhabitants of Sumatra as “squat brown savages” who are characterized by unrelenting violence is no longer acceptable, though the book is not nearly so egregious as some others written in the same era.
In a more subtle “cultural flaw” the book falls into the category of fictionalized biography, a popular genre of yesteryear. It is still found on many biography shelves, but modern readers are more likely to consider it fiction. Nat expresses opinions and feelings that the author could not possibly have known, and there is no documentation or source notes or other means by which a reader could determine how much of the book is based on pure fact and how much was fictionalized for the sake of a more compelling narrative.
I finished this book the same day I started it. I can’t quite pinpoint what I found so compelling, but there you have it. On the surface it doesn’t sound that exciting: a boy becomes an indentured servant, works hard to better himself, and, after a few years at sea, writes a book on navigation. But the reality is a book that is engaging and keeps the reader wanting more.