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Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early

By: Clare Vanderpool
Release Date: January 8, 2013

Rating: 5 Stars

Summary: 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.


Reading Navigating Early, I totally see why Clare Vanderpool won the Newberry last year. Hers are books that fall within that special category of middle grade fiction that speak as well to adults as to children, capturing not only the magic of childhood but also the hard hitting realizations of growing up. Even more impressively, I have to say her skillful yet subtle exploration of the themes of friendship, loss, and self discovery really snuck up on me here, and only serves to make this even more powerful.

What impressed me most of all though, is that this is a book with an incredible amount of depth. There are so many things going on here I’m hard pressed to explain it all, so I guess I’ll start with the obvious – on the surface, Navigating Early is a story of friendship between a new kid at a Maine boarding school and a fellow student who’s autistic as they go on a journey of discovery. Even though that alone would’ve made this a worthy read for me, beyond that, Navigating Early is really two character studies written in parallel, and that’s where this book really shines. The narrator, John Baker, is dealing with the recent death of his mother, while his friend Early Auden is dealing with the death of his brother Fisher. Let’s just say there’s something really compelling about John’s growth as a character, from his initial reaction to his mother’s death – a mix of grief and guilt because he failed to look after her – to his slow acceptance of her death over the course the story as he learns more about the meaning of loss from Early. And there’s something equally compelling about Early, outcast despite or maybe because he’s the younger brother of the school’s dead golden boy, even though Early’s convinced Fish is not really dead. So the two go on an expedition into the wilds of Maine to find Fisher, and the rest is history.

Along the way, there’s also a story within a story at work, the story of Pi. First of all, I can’t believe how imaginative Ms. Vanderpool is coming up with a story for an irrational number, but more than that, there’s something really poetic about the way she writes it. Not only did I find it totally believable that this would be the story Early would come up with and tell to explain the connections in his life in an orderly, mathematical way, but Pi’s adventures also serve a dual purpose, on one hand allegorical to symbolize John and Early going on this journey to try to find their place in the world, on the other, as a sort of counterpart to their journey that cleverly foreshadows a lot of the events. I absolutely loved all the different connections between the stories and how Pi’s story mirrors the boys’, and found the whole thing oddly appropriate once I understood the point of Pi. That said, some of the connections, while entirely appropriate, are a bit weird – there’s one, for example, with pirates, and I wouldn’t expect pirates in upstate Maine, but they also remind me of boyhood adventures in the tradition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, so I still came away with a nice feeling in the end.

For me, I loved the characters, the writing, the depth, but the best part of the book by far though is the powerful, realistic emotions throughout. John and Early don’t hit it off right away; in fact, John thinks of Early as that weird kid at first, and it’s really what John does during one regatta scene that seals the deal and really shows character growth as it should be, not just some realization at the end of the book, but a slow, steady change over the course of the story. There are all the things John learns about Early, about other characters, and most importantly, about himself, over the course of the story. Of course, there’s also what John learns about his relationship with his father, who left John and his mother to go to war; I appreciated how his father’s absence shaped John’s attitudes at the beginning of the story and how they changed at the end, especially how it’s reflected also in Pi’s story. And of course, the ending, I said this is a book about self discovery and finding one’s place in the world, so even though I saw everything coming and knew what the story had in store for John and Early, that doesn’t take away from the lessons learned.

Overall, Navigating Early is a most excellent read that really shows that, just because a book is middle grade, doesn’t mean it can’t have depth. Clare Vanderpool doesn’t take her characters, their development, or anything else for that matter for granted and it really shows in her writing.

Go to Mitch’s review on Goodreads.

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