Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
(borrowed unabridged audiobook from Camden County Library System)
Have you read Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest? If you haven't, you should. It absolutely earned its Newberry Medal. Here, with Navigating Early she shows that she is truly a talent to watch.
Jack Baker is uprooted from his Kansas home shortly after the death of his mother. Not only did her death leave him with a lingering sense of guilt, but he never really had a chance to discuss or process it. His father, a navy man, takes leave for long enough to take care of the funeral, pack up the house and make arrangements for Jack to go to boarding school back east.
Jack doesn't really know his father very well and he's unceremoniously dumped at school by a man, he assumes doesn't want to deal with him, and maybe doesn't care that much for or about him. Jack arrives at school grieving the loss of his mother, feeling unloved by his father, separated from the life and all of the people he knows, and unsure of how he's going to manage living this new and unasked for life.
Then, he meets Early. Early knows loss like Jack does. In fact, Early Auden's young life is filled with loss. After Jack shows himself to be undeserving of how welcoming Early has been to him, he makes up for it by accompanying the strange boy on his quest. When Jack's dad doesn't make it to see him in his first boat race and to take him home for the holiday, he decides to humor Early and keep him out of trouble. Little does he know what he is in for or just how much he has to learn... about everything.
Jack is by turns endearing and infuriating. He seems like a regular kid who got dealt a crappy hand and is not ready to deal with any of it. Most of his reactions are very typical of his age range. He's learned a lot of lessons and learned them well, but he doesn't always know how to avoid making the same mistakes again. He does recognize when he makes them and he instantly regrets them. His relationship with Early is comical in that the two boys both believe they are absolutely right about everything. However, Early, being a kind of know-it-all, most likely on the autism spectrum, despite showing little affect or emotion, is rarely as condescending as Jack. As it turns out, they both have a lot to offer one another and both are better off for knowing each other in the end.
This is one of those grand adventure stories. The way Vanderpool combines the crazy Appalachian adventure the boys find themselves in with Early's narrative found in the unending numbers of pi, is so unexpected and fun. Two boys lost in the woods, following the story one of them found in a series of numbers, wind up better, stronger, and getting so much more out of their escapade than either of them bargained for, or could have imagined. Not only do the boys grow and mend by the end of the book, I think the reader does, too.