It’s been a while since I’ve read a middle-grade/children’s book and I was excited when I learned that the book club’s book of the month for January has chosen a book along this genre. There is something soothing and uplifting in a children’s book and Navigating Early is no exception. It tells a strong story about family, friendship, loss, and acceptance.
Jack Baker just lost his mom and he is trying to rekindle his relationship with his father after being away to fight in the war. As if to make matters worse, he is transported from landlocked Kansas to a boarding school in coastal Maine where he feels left out and very alone. He meets a strange boy, Early Auden, who lives in the school basement, listens to Billie Holiday on rainy days, reads the numbers in pi as a story, and firmly believes in a lot of things contrary to what the other boys in school believe in.
It was my first time to read anything by Clare Vanderpool and even though I have a copy of her Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest, for quire sometime now, it got buried under all the other books on my TBR. Anyway, I was glad to have read Navigating Early first because it provided sufficient introduction to the writing of Clare Vanderpool.
The story was told in Jack’s POV and interspersed with sections on the adventures of Pi as narrated by Early. I didn’t like Jack at first because for me he was a typical young boy who complained all the time but as I read on, I finally understood where all of his angst and loneliness came from. But when it came to Early Auden, my heart was easily captured. I loved Early Auden. I liked his eccentricity and his strangeness. He was extraordinarily smart and the way he coped with life despite his young age and his being alone (why was he being left alone? Where were the state’s social services?) were really admirable. Just like Jack, I would have easily dismissed his stories about Pi as a product of his overactive imagination but the way he stubbornly held on to the truth of his stories and how he insisted that Pi’s story was the same as Fisher’s would also have swayed me to favor him and believe him.
True, there were some parts in the story, particularly in Pi’s story, that were incredible and too good to be true, but I was willing to overlook them if only to cheer Early and Jack on. I really wanted them to find what it was they were looking for, even though it meant that they should deal with a great bear, a scheming pirate, an old woman, a rattlesnake.
There was something about Navigating Early that made my throat constrict and my eyes teary. Maybe it was the fact that all of the characters suffered loss and grief. Maybe it was the maternal instinct in me because the main characters were young boys who were left to fend off for themselves and cope with the pain of losing a loved one. Maybe because a story about losing one’s way and coming back home would always make me cry. Maybe because the story of Early, Jack, Pi, and all the other characters reminded me that there would always be an end to sorrow and that it’s hope that would always make us navigate through life with determination and courage. Whatever it was that made me emotional, one thing was certain: I loved this book and I was glad this was the first book I got to finish for the new year.
“Sometimes it’s best not to see your whole path laid out before you. Let life surprise you, Jackie. There are more stars out there than just ones with names. And they’re all beautiful.”
My rating: 5/5 stars.
TFG Book of the Month for January.