Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
Published: January 8th 2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Source: local library (audiobook)
Synopsis (Goodreads): 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.
My thoughts: I’ve been kind of skeptical of middle grade fiction, but after a few months of listening to audiobooks on my very early morning commutes, I’ve discovered that they are my favorite category to listen to. These stories often seemed designed to be read aloud, so the narration seems natural.
The writing in Navigating Early is just so damn good, it’s one I’d recommend in either format. Clare Vanderpool knows how to weave a story and how to seduce a reader. She has a wonderful way of using language and of layering meaning into the story while the writing still seems natural and effortless.
Jack is a believable and compelling character, but it was Early who stole the show. Though he isn’t recognized as such in the post-war era, he’s an exceptional child who probably has Asperger’s Syndrome. Left to his own devices and able to explore his interests on his own at the boarding school, he enjoys a lot more freedom than most boys like him would be given today.
This allows Jack and Early to go on adventures that would seem impossible in today’s environment, but that makes them all the more interesting. The significance of Pi and the story of the black bear are rooted in the historical time period, and the detail is astounding. It’s a full immersion experience that completely transports the reader back in time.
As Jack and Early’s quest unfolds in parallel to the invented Pi narrative, each story mirrors each other and the layered plot adds to the reading experience. Vanderpool is an author who respects her intended audience and doesn’t water down her story or intended message, which is refreshing.
I’d recommend Navigating Early to imaginative middle grade students and to adults who are skeptical of the power of children’s literature to move and inspire. This novel will appeal equally to both types of readers.
Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks: “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.”