20 February 2013

Navigating Early (Clare Vanderpool)

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool’s follow-up to her Newbery-winning debut, Moon Over Manifest, didn’t wow me as much as her first novel—but it’s still sweet and compelling, a worthy addition to historical children’s fiction.

Narrator Jack Baker is thirteen in 1945, freshly mourning his mother, when the naval-captain father he hardly knows uproots him from his Kansas home and enrolls him in boarding school on the coast of Maine. Poor Jack’s so overwhelmed by his first glimpse of the ocean that he throws up on the sandy shore. (As a fellow transplanted plains-dweller, I can relate—though I’ve never had so strong a reaction, I think I’ll always be unsettled by the enormity of the sea.) But even the Atlantic seems shallow compared to Jack’s loneliness (is that a terrible simile? I worry that’s a terrible simile. Ah, well, if so, forgive me). And so he drifts into an unlikely friendship with Early Auden, “the strangest of boys,” who sorts jellybeans to calm himself down, who reads an epic voyage in the digits of pi. The two set off on a voyage of their own along the Appalachian Trail, ostensibly in search of a notorious bear . . . the discoveries they make, of course, are more personal, though perhaps as difficult and dangerous as bringing down such a beast.

Like I said above, I was less amazed by this one as her previous book, but it’s more the greatness of the latter than any fault of the former. And part of it’s definitely my own fault—I found Jack’s and Early’s episodic travels, full of larger-than-life characters, somewhat improbable. That’s thoroughly intentional on Vanderpool’s part, however, an obvious-in-retrospect homage to the Odyssey. (The classical scholar in me hangs her head in shame.) There’s a certain New England Huck Finn-iness to it, too, fun without being frivolous. While Early himself could easily have become a Manic Pixie Dream Autistic Kid, serving only as a means for Jack to work through his own pain, he’s a deeper character than that. Early has losses of his own, and is even less equipped to navigate out from among them than Jack, being daunted and confused by emotions in general. Both boys are broken at the start of the book; by the end, they’ve moved in the right direction.

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