January 14, 2013 by Heidi
Title: Navigating Early [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Clare Vanderpool [Website]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Middle Grade, Historical
Published: January 8th, 2013 by Delacorte BFYR
Format: Hardcover; 320 pages
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains.
Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear.
But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives.
If you read and loved Vanderpool’s heartwarming debut and Newberry Medal Winning Moon Over Manifest and are hoping to find the same depth of humanity in her sophomore novel, Navigating Early, you are in luck. In fact, my greatest criticism about Navigating Early is that it’s too thematically similar to Moon Over Manifest, so let me get that gripe out of the way before I can dive into why Navigating Early is such a wonderful read.
Both books involve children who are displaced–they have left what homes they knew to take up residence in a new and strange local. Both must learn to navigate their new environments as the new kid. Both have essentially lost their mothers, and both have a strong and wounding disconnect with their fathers. Both stories rely heavily on the power of coincidence or, as Jack’s mother would say, “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload.” Both books utilize the technique of stories within stories in order to tell their tale. In fact, Moon Over Manifest and Navigating Early were arranged so similarly that it made it impossible for me to be swept away and fall in love with this new book the way that I was when listening to Moon. I sincerely wonder if there had been more time in between my reading of the two, or if I had read Navigating Early first, which I would prefer. Perhaps Clare Vanderpool will fall into my list of authors who write the same sort of book over and over, but do it so well I love them regardless (this list being headed by John Green, of course).
My only final complaint is that those double meaning titles (you know the ones, like Saving Grace, Shattered Glass, that sort of thing) make me gag instinctively–it’s like something I would have named a book for a writing contest in 7th grade knowing the judges would all think ‘Oh! She’s so clever.’ And then tear up and promptly award me a blue ribbon. Yuck. But regardless, Navigating Early boasts one of my absolute favorite covers of 2013 thus far–I mean look at that water and fog!–so I’d still hang a giant poster of it on my wall.
The first 1/3-1/2 of Navigating Early slogs by at a fairly slow pace, but in a way that is necessary to set up for the remaining journey of the book. As a child of a landlocked state, I felt Jack’s complete nausea upon seeing the ocean, and as someone who for inexplicable reasons joined the crew team at University, I really pitied Jack’s first experiences in a boat attempting to navigate a language and motions that seemed ingrained in others, but to him were completely foreign. Jack is only 13, but he’s already learned some of the harsher lessons in life. He knows that nothing lasts forever, and envies those who have yet to see this. When his mother dies, his father returns from years at war to sweep her memory aside and drop his son at a boarding school hundreds of miles away from everything and everyone he knows, without even his remaining parent to comfort him.
Early has what we today would identify as Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of Autism, though in 1945 he is identified only as strange. In addition, he is a savant with an instinctual understanding and interpretation of math that blurs into synesthesia. Early sees Pi as more than a number–he sees a story, and Jack is the one boy willing to ask Early the all-important question: “Who is Pi?”
As Early reveals the story of Pi to Jack, the boys begin to mirror Pi’s journey in their search for the Great Appalachian Bear and Early’s brother. Jack begins to anticipate where the lines between reality and story will blur, questioning his own sanity as Early’s tale seems less and less crazy.
Navigating Early is a wonderful story of friendship and finding one’s bearings. Throughout so much of this story Jack feels lost, almost stymied by the possibilities before him. Early, on the other hand, maintains his direction. He knows who he is and where he is going, and he helps Jack to do the same–at least enough so that when he himself feels lost, Jack will be there to put Early back on track. In some ways, Vanderpool’s sophomore novel is stronger than her debut. She is more sure of herself as she constructs her adventures, more subtle in her connections, and more powerful in developing her characters. This is the nuance I love to see in Middle Grade. Vanderpool doesn’t write down to kids, she writes with introspection as one of them, imparting lessons with actions that could do all of us readers some good.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: Absolutely! After these first two books, Clare Vanderpool has become an auto-read author for sure–I only hope that she branches out a little in the construction of her next book.
Recommended for: Fans of Huckleberry Finn, Moon Over Manifest, or Stand By Me. It’s an ideal story of a journey and friendship.
Real life repercussions of reading this book: This book made me miss crew like crazy! Here’s me in my four (I’m 2 seat, which is second from the left) in college. I can’t even describe that sound of a boat gliding through the water that I love so much. Do any of you row?
Get a second opinion:
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “Adult reader me thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down. Parent-teacher me thinks it will be a difficult sell.”
Great Imaginations – “The characters really opened my heart and the story made me see middle-grade in a new way.”
The Book Smugglers – “I found Navigating Early to be a quiet, hopeful, beautifully rendered story.”
I’ve also reviewed:
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool