There have been or will be events in our lives when we think, "I can't believe I did that. How is it that I am still alive?" Or we will be placed in a situation completely beyond our control wondering if this will be our last moment to draw breath. At times such as these we are reminded, if we have forgotten, to be grateful every single day.
In the course of history there are those people, for reasons not immediately understood, who are saved when they should have died. The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower or John Howland's Good Fortune (Candlewick Press, September 22, 2015) written and illustrated by P. J. Lynch, his debut as an author, chronicles the days of such a person. It also serves to show how those who begin in one position in life can be elevated through circumstances, hard work and service to others.
London was a fine city when I was there. Greatest city in the whole world. Smelled bad, I must say, but it was huge and busy and exciting for a young lad like me.
As an indentured servant to John Carver, John Howland is busy as are the other servants to those people readying a rented ship bound for America. They have come from Holland where they fled due to religious persecution by the ruling royalty. William Brewster, the leader of the Separatists, will be aboard the Mayflower too. Working long hours into the night, all is eventually loaded.
After setting sail before morning's light and before they leave the coast of England John has earned the respect of first mate Bob Coppin with his forthright honesty. As a smaller ship, the Speedwell, from Holland joins them; there is much celebration and excitement for the voyage ahead. Two weeks pass with bad news for the travelers. Half their supplies are gone and they have not left England. The Speedwell is simply not seaworthy. This boat and many of the people stay behind as the Mayflower leaves.
Treacherous storms pound the ship, one after the other. Water pours from the top into the decks beneath, soaking the passengers. They are continuously advised to stay below until given permission to leave. On one occasion when the crew decides to turn the boat into the wind without sail hoping to keep it safe, John Howland, no longer able to stand the stench comes outside. An enormous wave tips the ship throwing him overboard.
As he accepts his fate, a voice calls to him and a flash of lightning reveals hope. When he arrives in the company of the passengers and crew, all are amazed. For a week he lays at rest recovering. During his absence, the rest of the passengers are beginning to show signs of the poor living and eating conditions. Illness and death begin to plague the ship.
In the months stretching into more than a year, land is finally sighted but it is not the longed for Virginia, a new charter is written, a search for a suitable settlement takes them north, there are encounters with the Native Americans, two-thirds of the members who sailed on the Mayflower die, King Massasoit of the Wampanoag and especially Squanto visit and assist the newcomers, the Mayflower returns to England, houses are slowly constructed, crops are planted in the spring and a feast to celebrate a good harvest lasts for several days in November. When a ship, the Fortune, is sighted before the winter snow falls, John Howland has a decision to make. Should he follow his dream to return to London a free man or stay in the new world?
As each portion of John Howland's harrowing journey to America and the equally challenging events once land is reached unfold, an underlying tension is felt with every page turn. P. J. Lynch, through research, makes these historical moments seem real and recent. Having John Howland narrate his own story makes it even more intimate. Woven into his vivid accounts are pertinent conversations and descriptive details. Here is a portion of a passage on a page.
We collected ourselves and loaded into the shallop right quick and cast off, heading north along the coast. We sailed with the icy winds whipping around us all that day without seeing a harbor, a river, or even a creek.
A squall blew up of a sudden, and with Bob Coppin and me learning on the tiller to steer us away from the rocks, the hinges of our rudder broke. There was nothing we could do but try to steer with our oars. Over the din of the storm, Bob shouted, "Be of good cheer, lads. I see it...I see the harbor!" and we cut in for the break in the shoreline.
The illustrations, rendered in watercolor and gouache, readily allow readers to reach back in time placing them alongside John Howland. Opening the dust jacket, this first image stretches across the spine to nearly midway on the back. A portion of the narrative on the left mirrors what we see on the front. A shiver of fear passes through us as we watch John fall into the raging, bitter cold water. All our senses are heightened. On the title page with a white background, opposite the text in black, P. J. Lynch has placed a portion of the ship's rigging and sail.
Each painting is a study in the architecture, clothing and people of this time period. Exquisite light and shadow give the perception of a lively scene frozen in a particular moment. The layout alternates in a pattern of two full pages edge to edge with the words in an inset, a page crossing the gutter to cover another third, leaving space for text and a full page opposite a large column of text with a vertical image on the other side. Sometimes we are given a panoramic vista or brought in close to the people. Other times a bird's eye view portrays the vastness of a depiction.
One of my many favorite illustrations is at the docked ship before they leave London. Beyond the lantern light, the darkness of the city shrouds the wagons, barrels, baggage, animals and people in shadow. Nearer the glow we see the people working and carrying to get ready. This image, like all of them, is so skillfully painted we feel as though we can hear the muffled conversations and animals calls, smell the city and shipyard odors, taste the salt in the air and feel the fur of the nearby sheep, goats and dog.
P. J. Lynch has written and illustrated a remarkable work of nonfiction in The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower or John Howland's Good Fortune. The hardships Howland and the others endured to seek refuge in another land are nearly unimaginable. Readers will leave this recounting with a far greater appreciation of all individuals involved but specifically John Howland. Every personal and professional shelf needs this book.
To increase your understanding of P. J. Lynch and his work please visit his website and blog by following the links attached to his names. Several pages of the book can be seen at a publisher's website. Candlewick provides a note from the author for readers.
Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other titles selected by bloggers participating in this week's 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.