After being awarded the Newbery for Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool is back with another historical novel, one that is just as gripping as her first work. Kayleigh has previously reviewed the 2011 award-winner, commenting on the layered storytelling and the believable characters. With Navigating Early, Vanderpool treats her readers to yet another textured tale, replete with complex characters and winning emotional journeys.
Jack Baker, whose mom called him Jackie, has been transplanted from Kansas and the home he has known his whole life to a boarding school in Maine following the death of his mother. With World War II ending, Jack had expected and hoped that his naval officer father would return home from combat and their family would be whole again. Instead, the distance and tension between them leave Jack feeling completely unmoored, and he finds himself missing his mother more than ever. Boarding school life is so different from what he is used to and while the principal urges him to join different groups and participate in school activities, Jack finds himself feeling isolated, and he is drawn to Early Auden, the oddball student who comes and goes as he pleases and listens to Billie Holiday when it rains.
Early is a bit of an odd duck, obsessed with the number pi and convinced that it tells the story of a boy named Pi, who is on a journey to earn his real name. He is also fascinated with stories of a massive bear living in the Appalachian Mountains and becomes convinced that he will find the beast (and perhaps other things, as well). As the students of the school prepare to head home for a long weekend away, Jack, whose father was unable to take him home, decides to join Early on his quest to find the bear. As they paddle along the river, they encounter a cast of memorable characters, some nice, some not-so-nice, and Jack begins to work through his grief and loneliness.
Navigating Early was a novel I just couldn’t put down, but instead of being absorbing because of its action-packed plot, I found it gripping because of the characters. I wanted to know more about Early, and I was so nervous for Jack, wondering if he would fit it, if he would find what he was looking for, if he would reconcile with his father… As they hike through the Appalachian Trail, they have nail-biting adventures and find themselves in the middle of some pretty strange situations, so not only is it a book with a great plot, it had great character development that kept me going back for more.
I think what endeared Jack the most to me was that he was so angry and felt so out-of-place. As a reader, I really sympathized with his uncertainty and his frustration. When the boys make fun of his friendship with Early, Jack struggles with the fact that he doesn’t want everyone to link him to the weirdest boy in school. In a way that wasn’t heavy-handed or preachy at all, Jack learns to stand up for his friend and trust him, and that even when it seems like Early’s a bit nutty, it’s important to have faith in your friends. There are some really beautifully written passages that will appeal to readers of all ages, but this is a book with characters and adventures that kids will remember and love.