Captain January

I watched both movies based on this short book – the 1924 silent film starring Baby Peggy, and the 1936 musical version with Shirley Temple. Since the films had the same basic ending I was sure I knew how the book would conclude. Not even close.

Before you meet seventy-year-old Captain Januarius Judkins (a/k/a Captain January a/k/a Daddy Captain) and ten-year-old Star Bright I’ll tell you a little about the author.

Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards was born in Boston on February 27, 1850. Her father was Samuel Gridley Howe, who helped establish the Perkins Institute, the first school for the blind in the United States. Mrs. Richard’s mother was Julia Ward Howe, best known for writing the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

After marrying her next-door neighbor Mrs. Richards would become the mother of seven children. She began writing and selling children’s poetry and novels, as well as biographies. In 1917 Mrs. Richards and her sister, Maud Howe Elliot won the Pulitizer Prize for Julia Ward Howe, a biography about their mother.

The author had more than 90 books published. Captain January was first printed in 1890.

The reader learns about Captain January’s background from the stories he tells to Star Bright. He’d run off to sea as a young boy and in time worked his way up to being ship’s captain. His last vessel was destroyed in a cyclone, and the captain was shipwrecked on a desert island – five years with a ship mate, and ten years alone after the mate died.

He was finally rescued and returned to his boyhood hometown, but couldn’t get used to being around people. He learned of the need for a lighthouse keeper on a island off the coast of Maine, asked for, and obtained the job. Once again he was living in solitude, until ten years before the story begins.

During a gale a shipwreck occurred on the lighthouse island’s rocky coast, and the only survivor was a baby girl. The next day Captain January sent for the minister to give a proper burial to the bodies he recovered, but refused to give up the baby he named Star Bright. He was sure the Lord wanted him to care for the little survivor.

He obtained a milk cow named Imogen, and later asked the minister for a couple of books to use in educating his girl. He was given the Bible, plus a book of Shakespeare’s plays. Those books became greatly loved by Star and the captain, but neither liked the dictionary the minister also gave them. That book was considered a troublemaker.

Star was not perfect – she could be bossy, had a quick temper, and didn’t like being in the company of strangers. Well, a girl raised by a recluse, and who read Shakespeare to a cow, can’t be expected to behave like an average child. But she adored her Daddy Captain, and enjoyed the company of the only person encouraged to visit the lighthouse.

Bob Peet was the pilot of the steamer Huntress that regularly went past the island. Some thought him not quite right in his mind because of his stubborn and quiet ways, but Captain January liked him because he could “belay his jaw” and sit for hours without feeling the need to speak.

One day Bob came by for a visit, and admitted he wasn’t on the Huntress because he’d run her aground on the sand during a thick fog. All aboard would have to wait until high tide before finishing their journey.

With the captain’s approval Bob rowed Star close to the grounded steamer. That short outing had serious consequences, for a lady passenger saw the girl, and was shocked by the resemblance to her sister, who’d been lost at sea – along with her husband and baby – ten years ago.

The next day the minister was rowed to the island to tell Captain January that wealthy Mrs. Morton was sure Star was her niece and wanted to do what was best for the girl. In an hour’s time Bob Peet would row Mr. and Mrs. Morton to the lighthouse. At first the poor captain railed at the injustice of a stranger claiming any right to the child who had become his reason for living, but though he was rough and uneducated Januarius Judkins had faith in the Lord’s will.

With heartbroken dignity he greeted Mr. and Mrs. Morton, and declared his lighthouse island to be “Good anchorage for a shipwrecked mariner like me, but no place for ladies or – or them as belongs to ladies.”

The captain was willing to give up his treasure, but when Star was asked to go off with her relatives she replied that they could kill her and take away her body, but she would never leave when she was alive. Mrs. Morton was not cruel, and so she left her niece with the lighthouse captain.

One crisis passed, but another one was looming.

On Christmas day Bob Peet came with pockets filled with candy and oranges, plus he brought a large box containing presents and a letter from Star’s aunt. When Star took her beautiful new doll up to her bedroom the captain made plans with Bob.

The Lord was letting Captain January know that he would soon receive his “final sailing orders” and Star needed to be taken care of. The captain would fly a blue pennant as a signal, and when Bob went past as pilot of the Huntress he would look for that pennant, and when he saw it he’d know all was well. (I looked in my father’s World War II edition of The Bluejackets’ Manual and saw that a blue pennant meant “senior officer present.”)

When the time came when Bob didn’t see the signal pennant he was to tell the steamer’s captain to send a telegram to Mr. and Mrs. Morton, and Bob was to row to the lighthouse and comfort Star.

I will end this summary by stating both of the film versions ended with Star going to live with a wealthy family, and the captain being hired to take charge of the family’s yacht. There are no yachts in the novel.

Is there anyone who doesn’t love the romance and lore of old-time lighthouses? This brief, six-chapter novel has a nautical flavor to it, with the main characters speaking in seafaring terms. The author moved to Maine a few years after her marriage, so I am sure the local dialect rings true.

Captain January and Star Bright are both salty individuals, but I grew to care for the loving and believable family. More than thirty-five years after writing Captain January Laura E. Richards wrote a sequel entitled Star Bright, published in 1927. This second book was apparently not a best seller, and the few copies I’ve seen for sale are on the pricey side. But I know I will eventually acquire a copy, for I want to know more about the story.

I found this book when I came up with the idea to read all of the original stories Shirley Temple movies were based on, and I was expecting the novel to be rather trite. It now holds a permanent place as one of my favorite Bookshelf Companions.

If you’d like to read Captain January it can be downloaded without charge at: