Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dare The Wind by Tracey Fern

This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of an unusual woman, Eleanor Prentiss, who (along with her husband as captain) set a record for the fastest journey from New York City, around the tip of Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. Generations ahead of her time, Eleanor Prentiss's determination to forge her own path in the world make her a role model for young women today.

Eleanor or Ellen as she was often called,  was born in 1814 in Marblehead, Massachusetts to John Prentiss, who was a captain of a coastal trading schooner. Prentiss taught his daughter how to navigate a schooner, perhaps because he did not have a son. Ellen spent many years navigating her father's merchant ships on voyages to China.

Josiah  and Ellen sailed together which was not unusual for husband and wife at in early 1800s. However, what was unusual was while Josiah was the captain, Ellen served as navigator on his ships. Perkins sailed The Oneida, a ship belonging to the firm, Grinnell and Minturn, in the China Trade.

The early 1800's were an exciting time with much progress in faster modes of travel. In 1849, transatlantic steamships like the SS Pacific with the American Collins Line were making the passage from New York to Liverpool in ten days. And just a day after the Perkins arrived in San Francisco, the first train travelled from New York City to Albany in five hours.

In 1849, the California Gold Rush began and thousands of American's traveled to the state to seek their fortune. Gold hunters could travel over the continental United States by wagon or horse or they could sail around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and up to California in the fast clipper ships. Many chose the latter because it was often a shorter trip, often only taking half the time. The shorter time meant more profits.

The owners of the Flying Cloud hired Josiah Perkins and his navigator wife Ellen. They made the journey from New York City to San Francisco in a remarkable 89 days and 21 hours. It was a journey that normally took at least four months or more. This record was due not only to the excellent design of the Flying Cloud, but also to the sharp navigation skills of Eleanor who had spent years studying ocean currents and meteorological data. Eleanor was a student of Mathew Fontaine Maury who had compiled the recorded ocean currents and weather conditions from the old log books of sailors. He then developed trade wind and storm and rain charts to aid navigators such as Eleanor Prentiss. Eleanor used this information to aid in the navigation around the tip of Cape Horn and up to San Francisco.

Tracey Fern recounts Eleanor's remarkable story in Dare The Wind and specifically her record setting voyage to San Francisco in 1851. Fern's account captures Ellen's daring spirit and determination to succeed in what was then solely a man's domain - the sea. The intensity of Eleanor's desire to live her life at sea, doing what she loved, navigating a ship is captured from the very beginning of the book.
"Ellen Prentiss had always felt the sea tug at her heart, strong as a full-moon tide. Her papa said that was because she was born with saltwater in her veins."
Fern's vivid prose is further enhanced by Emily Arnold McCully's gorgeous watercolour illustrations that convey both the movement and beauty of the sea and the sleek clipper ship. The back of this picture book contains a detailed Author's Note on Eleanor Prentiss as well as a short glossary of nautical terms.

Dare The Wind has recently been named an ALSC American Library Association 2015 Notable Children's Book.

Tracey Fern attended Harvard College where she studied history and biology and then studied law at Boston College Law School. She spent several years working as a real estate lawyer but it wasn't until she had her own children that she decided to try writing books.

Book Details:
Dare The Wind by Tracey Fern
New York: Margaret Ferguson Books Farrar Straus Giroux 2015

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