Review: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
Before I say anything else about this book:
- does Navigating’s cover not remind you of its predecessor, Moon Over Manifest?
- did anyone else make Life of Pi comparisons while reading it?
- or Keeper, by Kathi Appelt?
- or the film Moonrise Kingdom, for that matter?
That said, Navigating Early, by 2011 Newbery Award winner Clare Vanderpool, is a strange strange story. It’s a story-within-a-story of tall tales, self-discovery, friendship, and old school adventure.
Vanderpool captured my attention right away with the character of Jack, a self-described “fish out of water,” only inversed. Not only has he been transplanted from Kansas to Morton Hill Academy, a maritime-obsessed boarding school on the coast of Maine, Jack is also struggling with the recent loss of his mother. This adds another level of estrangement between him and everyone else in his life, particularly his father, a naval officer who has just returned from four years of fighting in WWII. Through a series of embarrassing events, Jack gets acquainted with Early, “that strangest of boys” who believes that Pi is more than a number, that Pi tells a story, and that contrary to the “theories” of a university math professor, Pi isn’t finite. Early is also no stranger to loss, but unlike Jack, he isn’t lost. He’s actively looking for something. Perhaps that’s the reason why Jack decides to join Early on his crazy quest down the Kennebec River to find Pi.
As they make their way down the river, elements of Early’s story start to blur into their encounters. Like Pi, who gets hijacked by pirates, Jack and Early are set upon by lawless loggers. Their leader wears an eyepatch. They also meet an extraordinary set of loners taking refuge in the woods of Maine, whether because they are running from their past, haunted by it, or unwilling to let go. With each coincidence and interaction, the parallels between Pi’s story and theirs, theirs and those they meet, multiply and unfold like an infinite mirror. But instead of repeating the same patterns, these parallels allow Jack and Early to see themselves, each other, and the people they care about in a clearer light, one that steers them back on course.
I must admit I wasn’t that interested in the spliced in stories Early would tell of Pi, back when the boys were still at Morton’s Academy. There was a dream-like, spacey quality that made it difficult for me to read–I found myself impatient to return to the “real world” of Jack and Early. It wasn’t until Pi’s story started to parallel Jack and Early’s boat adventure that I started to pay more attention. Those parallels begged the question: did Pi’s story predict the future, or does Early, who “reads” the number, do his research well enough to make future happenings fit the story of Pi? To my amazement, I found myself flip-flopping between the two possibilities from chapter to chapter.
Navigating Early is an ambitious book, tackling themes like loss of a parent, grief, guilt, and post-traumatic stress disorder, just to name a few. And it’s not afraid to be ambiguous. Why did the real Appalachian Bear lead to Pi? I couldn’t always make sense of the story, but I couldn’t put it down.