Navigating Early

10Feb13

“If it’s raining, it’s always Billie Holiday.” There are so many things Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool, gets right. This is a story about navigation, first of all, and it begins with being lost. Everyone in this book has lost something or someone, and each in some way must find a way home.

Jack Baker is lost. His mother has died and his father’s soul seems to have died with her. His father cleans their Kansas home, throws out or donates her possessions and takes Jack to a boarding school in Maine. The first time Jack sees the ocean it is so overwhelming that he vomits. Perhaps Jack’s father, a naval captain, finds the vaguely military air of Morton Hill Academy comforting; after speaking with the Headmaster and finding Jack’s dorm room he remakes Jack’s bed and sorts his sock drawer as they unpack. An awkward goodbye “. . . that involved a salute and a handshake . . .” and the captain is gone. Jack is alone.

But Jack is not to be pitied. This is not one of those fish-out-of-water, milquetoast child makes good stories where the protagonist starts out bullied. Jack knows nothing about boats and can’t row like the other kids, but he does fit in well enough, and the Headmaster gets it right when he tells Jack, “. . . boys here at Morton Hill Academy are pretty much like kids anywhere. If you want to sit with a group in the lunchroom, they’ll probably let you. If you want to go off and sit by yourself, they’ll probably let you do that, too.”

Jack finds himself drawn to Early Auden: Early who tries to sandbag the ocean, Early who listens to Mozart on Sundays, Louis Armstrong on Mondays, who comes and goes from classes when he pleases, sorts jelly beans and reads the transcendental irrational number Pi, the ratio of the diameter to the circumference of a circle, like a story. Early, like Pi, is irrational and is transcendent. It is to Clare Vanderpool’s credit that she takes Early on his own terms as a person, that his limitations are clear and his strengths seem real. He’s here and she’s written him and never once used the word Autism or the word Asperger’s.

Pi’s story, the story of leaving his mother and finding himself despite losing all, or perhaps because of it, is a story that becomes both guide and metaphor for the journey that both Early and Jack take through the north woods of Maine. Confident Pi sets sail, leaving his childhood. He loses his ship, his way, nearly loses himself. Jack and Early, Jack’s father, Early’s brother, each of them is Pi, each of them is lost, each finds his way with the help of the others. Oddly, for a book in which mothers are largely absent, this is a book about the redemptive power of mother’s love.
Inevitably, a book in which the character Pi takes on a metaphoric life of its own invites comparison with The Life of Pi (and here) by Yann Martel. The Life of Pi, though, is a far more complex book, an extended, multilayered metaphor in and of itself, an examination of the role of religion, hope and belief. In Navigating Early, Pi is a metaphor; people are important.

This is not a perfect book. Loose ends are too neatly tied up at the very end of the book, for one, giving it a Deus-ex-Machina quality . . . but that’s only a quibble. This is a very good book, one worth reading and recommending.

Navigating Early is Clare Vanderpool’s second book. Her first book, Moon Over Manifest, won the 2011 Newbery Award.
I would like to thank Random House for an advanced reader’s copy.

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