By Clare Vanderpool
Delacorte Press (Random House)
When Moon Over Manifest won the 2011 Newbery Medal, it took everyone off guard. Any time a debut novel receives that sort of recognition, the followup isn’t just a followup. It’s also a form of validation. With the occasionally vexing, often exquisite Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool reasserts herself as an author of sizable talent.
It’s 1945 and Jack Baker is not in Kansas anymore. He’s in Maine, sent to boarding school after the death of his mother. It’s an adjustment. Things are different, but nothing is as different as Early Auden, an outcast savant obsessed with his brother, thought killed in WWII, and the number pi. He sees an elaborate story of Pi in the endless chain of digits. When Early sets out on a quest to find Pi by tracking a legendary black bear on the Appalachian Trail, Jack joins him. Their quest brings them into contact with a cast of memorable characters and unexpected, sometimes threatening situations, Early’s story of Pi begins to reflect reality. We soon realize that Early and Jack are each searching for something. While not exactly what they bargained for, both find what they seek.
Vanderpool’s multilayered storytelling is rich, with complex characters and excellent foreshadowing. Details are carefully revealed. Indeed, the measured pace may be trying for some young readers. “Rewarding” is often code for “nothing happens until the end” – that isn’t the case here, but there is a necessary build. The first 3/4ths of the book steadily lays the groundwork for what happens in the final quarter, when the pace quickens toward a gripping, meaningful conclusion where all the plot threads are skillfully tied up. Readers who invest in the story will be left satisfied.
The Odyssey must have been an inspiration, with parallels evident between Homer’s epic poem and the quests of Pi and the central characters. Heck, there’s even a cyclops (of sorts) in the form of backwoods logger/pirate MacScott. It’s a journey book, and everything that happens along the way happens for a reason.
There were elements that took me out of the story. First, Jack as the narrator. I occasionally found myself thinking “if this is a 13 year old boy, he’s the world’s most self-reflective, mature 13 year old”. In these moments it felt like I was reading the author’s thoughts instead of the character’s. Second, Early’s story of Pi’s amorphous journey. It felt, at times, like when someone provides you with a detailed retelling of the dream they had last night. It may be important and contain greater meaning, but it doesn’t always make for engaging storytelling.
But those are fairly small quibbles in the grand scheme. As a whole, this is an impressive read. The plot and characters are expertly crafted, resulting in lasting emotional impact. It’s a book that will undoubtably be in the discussion for the best novels of the year, and I tend to agree.
Review copy from the publisher.