Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool is almost perfect, as far as I am concerned. Now I am sure that there are those who will be able to point out some flaw that has escaped my attention, but I closed this one with a contented (though teary) sigh and wonder that Clare Vanderpool manages to bring this wild romp of a tale full-circle. It’s the story of twelve year old Jack Baker, native Kansan who has recently been sent to a boys’ school in Maine because his mother is dead and his father is a Navy man and the U.S. is wrapping up World War II. He doesn’t exactly fit in, but then again, he’s not sure he wants to–his grief is raw and he’s confused about just about everything. He eventually falls in with Early Auden, “strangest of boys,” and that’s when the adventure really begins. Early Auden is, as Jack repeatedly points out, strange. He lives on campus at the school (he’s an orphan), he only comes to class when he’s of a mind to, he follows a rigid schedule for what music he listens to each day, and he is obsessed with the number pi.
Early and Jack embark on a quest to find Pi (the person, represented in Early’s brilliant mind somehow as the number–or something like that), and it turns into a whole lot more. It turns into a search for Early’s older brother, Fisher, school hero turned soldier who died on a mission in France. It turns into a search for an elusive monster of a bear on the Appalachian Trail. It eventually becomes an opportunity for the two boys to help an old woman who is totally lost in her grief. Of course, the quest also has a way of bringing Jack back to his own grief that he has tried to run away from. To be more specific than this would provide spoilers, and this is definitely a book you don’t want spoiled for you.
I read and enjoyed Vanderpool’s Moon over Manifest, which won the 2011 Newbery Medal, but I have to say that I think Navigating Early beats it all hollow. This one definitely has the polish that Manifest lacks. Too, I have a thing about World War II stories, and I’m fascinated by stories of children with exceptionalities. Although he’s never called autistic (and in the 1940s he wouldn’t have been), it’s obvious that’s the best word to describe Early. Vanderpool is a master at characterization, and she has a wonderful way of making the reader see things through Jack’s eyes. I love this:
But as we continued on and the day grew darker with more clouds and trees, the noises grew darker as well. The wet leaves gave a sucking sound beneath my feet, as if trying to pull me into the ground. The rain lost its pitter-patter as it grew heavier, seeming more like a heavy sigh now. The whole forest exhaled an ancient breath that it must have held since its great trees were saplings. I felt as if I were being drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of the woods. I knew that inside each tree, etched into its core, were circles, each ring telling the story of a year in the life of that tree and this forest. What kinds of scars and jagged lines would someone find in the life of the tree? I wondered.
Did people have telltale lines like that? What would mine look like? I didn’t need to see them. I knew they had been severed last summer. A gash had been cut into me, so deep that I felt I was at that tipping point, when the lumberjack is just about to yell “Timber!” But somehow I remained poised, in precarious balance, not sure which way I might fall. (200-201)
This book is about grief and falling and figuring out how to get up and live again. It’s a Cybils middle grade fiction nominee and a possible Newbery contender. I think it might have more Newbery potential than Cybils because I have a suspicion this is one adults might enjoy more than kids. At any rate, I love it. Highly, Highly Recommended. (Delacorte 2013)