In both of Clare Vanderpool’s artfully written novels, the young protagonists’ fathers yank them out of the lives they’ve known and deposit them in unfamiliar surroundings, where they must make sense of the past and find their way in a strange new present.
But while Abilene (the main character in the 2011 Newbery Medal winner Moon Over Manifest) and 13-year-old Jack Baker of Navigating Early both narrate richly layered tales that explore memory, loss, discovery and redemption, their stories are in fact quite different.
Vanderpool says in an interview from her home in Wichita, Kansas, “Abilene has never lived in one place or been grounded in a community, and that’s what she’s sent to.” By contrast, “Jack was comfortable and grounded, and now he’s at the edge of the country without any bearings.”
Indeed, when Kansas-boy Jack sees the ocean for the first time, he throws up. A bumpy cargo-plane ride to the Maine coast contributed to his stomach upset, but his disorientation also stems from emotional upheaval: World War II has just ended, Jack’s mother has recently died, and his father has brought him east to attend a boys’ boarding school near his military post in Portsmouth. Although Jack can appreciate the salty air, the ocean waves are forbidding and the multi-hued sand reminds him of his beloved mother, who was like “sand that clings to your body, leaving its impression on your skin to remind you of where you’ve been and where you come from.”
Even as he grieves the loss of his mother and his home, Jack begins to explore his new surroundings, goes out for the crew team and becomes friends with a boy named Early Auden. Early is an intelligent, eccentric sort: He’s obsessed with the Appalachian brown bear and timber rattlesnake, plays Billie Holliday only when it rains, and he has excellent water-sports skills, too.
That bundle of attributes make Early irresistibly intriguing to Jack, and as the boys grow closer, Early reveals something even more fascinating: The numbers of pi have colors, and he can read in the numbers a dramatic and exciting story that’s going to help him find that brown bear—and his brother, a soldier who was lost in the war.
Jack listens to each installment of the adventures of Pi (the hero of Early’s tale), but is skeptical about the story, let alone the possibility of finding bear or brother. Even so, he joins Early on his quest: The two explore on land and sea along the Appalachian Trail, and encounter a range of unusual people with their own stories—some scary, some poignant, all of them mysteriously similar to the people and places in the tale of Pi’s journey.
Navigating Early is a complex story, to be sure, and it’s all the more satisfying for its poetic language and intimation that not everything has a logical explanation. Vanderpool herself is quite comfortable with the latter notion. “Jack’s mom introduces that idea to him . . . the way our paths cross, our lives intersect and collide,” she says. “They’re all things I’ve experienced in my own life. I know this story pushes magical realism just a tad, but I’m okay with that because, in my own life, there are amazing things that happen, coincidences and connections you would never expect.”
The novel’s exploration of the ways in which physical places can shape our emotions is also a theme that’s been central to Vanderpool’s experience. “That absolutely comes from me,” she says. “I’ve traveled a lot, and have lived in the same neighborhood my whole life, which I love. It’s very much part of my makeup.” She adds with a laugh, “When I was dating my husband, I joked with him and said, ‘Where you go, I go! Pick any house on these four streets.’” And so he did: They and their four children live in a house two blocks from Vanderpool’s childhood home.
Having her mother nearby is something Vanderpool enjoys, not least because the idea for Navigating Early was touched off by her mother’s description of a vivid dream about a young man who was an exceptionally talented pianist. “That got me thinking,” she says. “I thought it would be interesting to write about a younger character with some type of savant ability.”
She began to do research about savants, and about pi, which, she says, “is the be-all, end-all for people that are into [math]. . . . It has a magical, mystical quality.” A trip to Maine helped solidify the landscape in her mind. And then, Vanderpool says, Early made himself known: “At a certain point,” she explains, “you let go of the inspiration and research and the characters take over. . . . It might sound strange because they’re characters you’re making up, but it’s the only way I can describe it. You give them a chance to tell you who they are.”
Fortunately, Vanderpool was listening. In doing so, she has created a memorable story that is by turns poignant, funny and exciting—and reminds us not to rule out the possibility that there might be a bit of magic in our everyday lives.