Monday, October 7, 2013

2014 Second Takes: Navigating Early

I was in the "Moon over what?!" group when Clare Vanderpool's Newbery win was announced. I immediately sought out out and read Moon Over Manifest and... well... I didn't agree with Sam Bloom.* It was good, but not Newbery good.

Then Sam (Eddington) read her follow-up, Navigating Early. He didn't like it. When he described the plot to me, it sounded ludicrous, but other people seemed to like it, so I put it on my "give it a chance" list. And finally, I did.

In the grand Cooperative Children's Book Center tradition, I'll start with the good.

Vanderpool does setting really well here, better than she did in Manifest, I think, and setting was one of the strongest aspects of that book. She captures both the boarding school and the deep woods of Maine effectively, and even gives a sense, in flashback, of the wide vistas of the Kansas prairie.

The side plots are intriguing as well - all of the people that Jack and Early meet in the woods, and the ways their stories entwine. The dream-like nature of those encounters, and the way they advance the plot and the theme, reminded me of Breadcrumbs. 

In terms of integrating what I'll call the Pi Story Plot with the realistic plot though, I think Vanderpool fails where Ursu succeeded. It's just not made clear, either explicitly or implicitly, how the reader is meant to categorize that whole story. Is Early clairvoyant, reading the actual future in the (erroneous, but that's another story) numbers of pi? Is magic at work? Nothing about the tone of the rest of the story suggests that we should take it as magical realism. It's just confusing. Narrator Jack tells us that his mother used to say that "There are no coincidences. Just boatloads of miracles." Are we supposed to take that at face value? I think a series of miracles makes for some weak plot scaffolding. 

I'm also troubled by Early as a character. In the way his disability advances the plot and brings about a revelation for the non-disabled character, he felt a bit like a one-dimensional Magical Disabled Person to me  (especially in contrast to Oscar from The Real Boy, whose disability is just one facet of his identity). I really, really hated the way he formed an instant rapport with everybody they met, like some kind of autistic Pollyanna.

Finally, there are a few too many instances where Vanderpool drives home her point by telling instead of showing. After the encounter between Jack and Mrs. Johanssen, he asks himself, "But how had her words meant so much to me, when she was speaking them to the son she thought had returned? Because she let me hear them as if they were being spoken to me. And I guess, in a way I let her speak to me as if I were her son." Revelations are not so effective when you have to spell them out. 

In the end, I was left feeling the same frustration I felt after reading Moon Over Manifest: Navigating Early is almost a great book, but it never quite comes together.

*Known affectionately around the About to Mock ranch as "Sam Over Manifest". We'd still love to sit down over drinks sometime and pick his brain about that book.


  1. This review breaks my heart a little because I loved the book so much. I shouldn't get so emotionally attached, but I do. :-) I'll just say one thing in defense of Early, and that is that I have known people with autism spectrum disorders who have the same ability as Early to connect on some level with everyone they meet. So for me, Early didn't seem like a stretch of the imagination or some dream character invented to move the plot forward. He seemed very real, and I wanted to step inside the book and meet him.

  2. Well, a lot of people agree with you! I think Clare Vanderpool just may not be my cup of tea.

  3. Well, I must say I'm honored to have been given a nickname by y'all - Sam Over Manifest is fine by me! And I agree, it would be fun to sit down and chat about Abilene and the gang, maybe at some point in Philly?

    As for Navigating Early, I read it so long ago that I don't feel that well-equipped to argue any of your points. It's one of the titles in my Library's Mock Newbery, and I'm waiting on the audiobook to come in so I can reread it... hopefully I'll have something of worth to add to the conversation at that point.

    1. Sadly, Rachael isn't going to be at Midwinter this year. I am, though, and if you have time for lunch/coffee/etc., I'd be honored to hear your thoughts!