Vanderpool, Clare. Navigating Early. 320 p. Delacorte Books. 2013. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 0385742096
I think this is going to be on a lot of major Best of 2013 lists, and deservedly so. It's a beautifully written, extremely literary children's novel. Clare Vanderpool novel Moon Over Manifest won the Newbery, and though I haven't read it yet, I'm not surprised. This novel screams Newbery to me.
Jack Baker's life has been upturned at the end of WWII. His mother died suddenly, while his father, a career military man, was in Europe fighting. His father uproots Jack from his native Kansas and enrolls him in an elite boarding school in Maine, near a base where he'll be stationed. Jack has a hard time fitting in, but he befriends an odd boy named Early Auden (who'd surely have a diagnosis of Asperger's today.) Early's obsessed with tracking down a great black bear that's been sighted along the Appalachian Trail, and the two boys sneak away from school and embark on a quest to find the bear.
Navigating Early read like an Odyssey story for me; on their quest, they meet a cast of characters, whose stories and lives intertwine in strange and wonderfully unexpected ways. Even though many of these characters are larger than life, there's something emotionally true about them, and they're going to stick with me for a long, long time.
Early has a theory that the digits in the number pi tell a story about a boy named Pi, and the story of Pi is interwoven in the book, in between the chapters about Jack and Early. Pi's story mirrors and foreshadows the boys' quest, and again, it's beautifully written. I must confess, though, that I never like this literary technique and always find myself skimming and skipping ahead to the main action. It's totally my own private pet peeve, and intellectually I understand and appreciate why Vanderpool did it, but as a reader, it bugged me.
Even though I loved this book, I'm not sure to whom I would recommend it, except to other librarians or to adults who enjoy thoughtful literary juvenile fiction. It's one of THOSE kinds of books. Our copy has been sitting out on display for a few weeks, and no one has picked it up. I think it's a book that's going to have to be hand sold. It's absolutely worth reading, though.