Author: Clare Vanderpool
Genre: Historical, Middle Grade
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 8th 2013
Hardcover: 320 pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: I got a review copy via Netgalley
Format (e- or p-): e-ARC.
Why did I read this book: Because I ADORED Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest which basically made me into a fan for life.
It’s the end of World War II and 13-year-old Jack Baker’s father is finally coming back home. Unfortunately his return is marred by the death of the sudden wife he left behind and without knowing what to do with a son he barely knows, he sends Jack to a boarding school in Maine.
There, Jack meets Early Aiden, a strange boy who often misses lessons and who can always be found listening to records in his basement room where he also spends time reading the number pi as a story and collecting news clippings about the sightings of a Great Appalachian Bear.
The two strike an unexpected friendship and although Jack often finds himself befuddled by Early’s behaviour, he ends up joining the other boy on his quest for the Great Bear on the Appalachian Trail.
Navigating Early is the sophomore novel from Clare Vanderpool, following up the success of her first award-winning novel Moon Over Manifest. Like Moon it is also a historical novel, featuring a young protagonist and it is a very similar story thematically speaking but it diverges from its predecessor perhaps in an essential way.
The similarities appear in the way that this too is a novel about connections, coincidences, memories and one that rely on stories within stories to carry some of its themes forward. The main recurring story-within-within story is that of the number pi as told by Early, who sees the infinite (or is it?) number as the story of a questing character trying to earn his name.
It is never stated outright in the novel because at the time the novel is set the identification didn’t exist but Early has Asperger’s Syndrome (a high functioning form of autism) and is a savant that sees numbers and therefore to him “pi” is not a what but a who. As the boys navigate around the trail, and Early tells his tale, the two narratives start to blur.
En route, they also meet memorable figures and learn more about life on the trail and those figures’ stories end up being threaded into the narrative in a slightly too coincidental way. That said, if the author does one thing really, really well is to take this reliance on the coincidental and turn it into something wholly moving and welcomed.
My thoughts so far haven’t quite captured the beauty of the story but this exists in the way that Jack slowly understands Early or how Early’s extraordinary gifts are more important to the quest than we could ever have imagined. The aftermath of World War II is also of heartfelt importance here in how it has affected the lives of those who survive leading Jack to have more insight and understanding of his father’s behaviour as it has been shaped by his experience in the War. The ending, when all stories come together, is extremely touching.
That said, one of my favourite things about Moon Over Manifest was how diverse it was in the stories it told and this is something I sorely missed in Navigating Early. Although I truly appreciated the stories being told here – of soldiers coming back home and of boys growing up – and think they are important, I also felt slightly sad that for example, all the women depicted are those left behind or those who passed away, rarely active in the story at all, functioning more as motivation than being characters on their own.
Despite these reservations, I found Navigating Early to be a quiet, hopeful, beautifully rendered story.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
“If I’d know what there was to know about Early Auden, that strangest of boys, I might have been scared off, or at least kept my distance like all the others.”
Rating: 7 – Very Good.
Reading Next: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
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