Wednesday, March 13, 2013

2014 Contenders: Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

The best characters in children's literature are ones we can believe as people. We read about Ramona Quimby, or Dicey Tillerman, or Bud Caldwell, and we feel like they're living, breathing human beings, people we wouldn't be surprised to meet. This is true even in books that aren't realistic fiction -- although the adventures of Meg O'Keefe, Will Stanton, and Lyra Belacqua may be otherworldly, their personalities are still recognizable and sharply focused. And, maybe most of all, it's true of characters that are quirky, eccentric, or otherwise "different." Anne Shirley, Marcus Heilbroner, and Lucky Trimble are all strikingly, consistently out of step with their surroundings, but they still seem like real people with real hopes, fears, and dreams, people whose actions are inspired from within, rather than imposed on them by the whims of the author.

And that's my number one problem with Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool's new novel. The book is narrated by Jack Baker, a thirteen-year-old Kansas boy who's been sent to boarding school in Maine after the death of his mother in the mid-1940s, but the real center of the story is Jack's friend Early Auden. Early is a truly strange kid, a mathematical savant who's obsessed with the number pi, turning the digits into an elaborate story about a boy's mythical quest. He also sorts jellybeans to calm down, suffers from some kind of seizures, will only listen to certain records on specific days, obsesses over a dangerous wild animal known as the Great Appalachian Bear, and is a very good boatbuilder. He's also an orphan who lives by himself in the school custodian's workshop and insists that his brother, a soldier who perished in the fighting in France, isn't actually dead.

I was never able to buy Early as a character, rather than an aggregation of literary quirks. It's much the same problem that I had with Stella and Angel in last year's Summer of the Gypsy Moths, and for me, it's enough to sink the book. I need to be able to believe in Early for the novel to work, and I simply couldn't do it.

Setting the characters aside for a minute, there's an awful lot going on in the plot, and to her credit, Vanderpool manages to link all the parts together. However, I wasn't sure how I was meant to interpret the magical realism elements as the story of Pi (no, not this one) and Jack and Early's adventures in the Maine woods intersect -- is there something supernatural going on, or is it just a bizarre set of coincidences, and does it matter? I also felt like the busyness of the plot meant that certain elements got short shrift; I expected the Steeplechase to become a major element, but it ended up as a mere footnote, and I felt like Gunnar's backstory, which got shunted to the sidelines, was one thing too many.

Maybe I'm simply immune to Clare Vanderpool's magic; I wasn't overly enthusiastic about Moon over Manifest either, and that one won the Newbery. Other reviewers, including Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes, like Navigating Early better than I do, and it's received several starred reviews, including ones from School Library Journal and Kirkus. But I'm not on board, and I think there are going to be many better options for this year's Newbery.

Published in January by Delacorte / Random House


  1. Interesting. I had more problems with Jack than I had with Early. I can see what you are saying about him "being an aggregation of literary quirks", but he became more real to me. I felt the author's voice intruded on Jack's narrative too often which is why I had a harder time with him.

    As for there being many better options...I hope you are right but I have been a bit discouraged by the options so far this year.

    1. Travis mentioned in his review that Jack's voice was problematic in places, so it's not just you.

      So far, I'm on the Water Castle train, but the year is still quite young!

    2. I still haven't been able to read Water Castle yet. I'm looking forward to that one.

  2. And there is also the issue that Sondy brought up on the Heavy Medal site, that no mathematician would ever say that pi is ending.

    I just started this one yesterday, so I have no opinion of my own yet.

    1. Yeah, that's a problem. I was also bothered by the fact that Vanderpool's author's note states that the sequences of digits she used aren't really from the first few hundred digits of pi. Like...if you're making up a fictional story out of the number, is it really that hard to use the digits that are actually in the number?