March 23, 2006


Bushnell’s Submarine: The Best Kept Secret of the American Revolution. By Arthur S. Lefkowitz. Scholastic. $16.99.

Trapped in Ice! An Amazing True Whaling Adventure. By Martin W. Sandler. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Attractively sized, beautifully printed, with antiqued-looking pages, typefaces color-coordinated with their covers’ colors, and abundant use of photos, maps and excerpts from period sources, these two books present fascinating stories of American history in a format and with a style that readers ages 9-12 should find immediately appealing.

     The stories themselves are highly dramatic.  Bushnell’s Submarine is about the world’s first underwater attack vessel, the Turtle, created by David Bushnell and used in a bold attempt to sink the flagship of the British fleet in New York harbor.  The attack failed – a success would likely have changed the course of military history and the progress, if not the eventual outcome, of the American Revolution – but what is amazing is the fact that it apparently failed literally by a matter of inches.  The human-powered Turtle was designed to attach a mine to the underside of a ship – but the operator could not see what he was doing, and apparently, while trying to bore a hole to attach the mine, struck the heavy metal used to attach the ship’s rudder to its keel.  A few inches away, the wooden keel itself would have been vulnerable – but the operator had no way to find it.

     But the failure of the Turtle to destroy HMS Eagle is not the point of this story; nor is it its end.  Bushnell’s development of a submarine more than 100 years before the problem of seeing underwater was solved was as amazing in its own way as the 20th-century development of space flight in the days before significant computer power was available.  Bushnell made other contributions to the colonists, and was himself a fascinating figure – though he faded so thoroughly into obscurity after the Revolutionary War that little is known of his later life.  Arthur S. Lefkowitz tells his story with great dash and enthusiasm, and the quotations from primary sources – including an amusing poem related to Bushnell’s exploits – give the book a great deal of immediacy.

     Trapped in Ice! also uses primary sources in its thoroughly exciting tale of a much later time – but one still very remote from the 21st century.  Martin W. Sandler’s story is about a fleet of 39 whaling ships that sailed in late spring of 1871, only to encounter an unparalleled natural disaster.  Eskimos warned the whalers that winter was already beginning in the far north, and conditions would rapidly become extremely harsh.  The captains of seven ships listened; those of the other 32 did not.  The result was that all of them became trapped in Arctic ice – with 1,219 people aboard, including women and children.  Yet far from being a bleak story involving huge loss of life, this is a tale of great courage: of human beings far from any hope of assistance finding ways to help themselves survive, even at the cost of their ships and their livelihoods.  The most amazing part of the story is that not one single member of the expedition died: all were eventually rescued after enduring tremendous hardships.  The excerpts from expedition diaries and period accounts, added to modern writings about the ill-fated expedition, create a tremendously vivid story that harks back to the long-gone days when cities such as New Bedford, Massachusetts were famed as thriving seaports for the skill of their whaling ships and the whalers aboard them.

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