CYBILS REVIEW: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool


At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains.

Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear.

But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives.


I'm still thinking about this book and how it touched me in so many ways. Vanderpool seems to have gift for writing characters that I can really relate to even though my experiences are so different than those of her characters.

The main character, Jack, finds himself in a completely new environment without any family members to help him adjust to his new circumstances.  The death of his mother and his father's seeming coldness have left Jack adrift with no idea where to turn for help.  When he meets Early he isn't sure what to make of the boy who seems so sure of everything even when others disagree with him.  He realizes very quickly that Early doesn't see the world the same way everyone else does and it confuses him, but at the same time it draws him in.  When his father doesn't show up for a planned get together, Jack agrees to go with Early on a quest to find the Great Appalachian Bear.  But what is Early really looking for? And can they find it before disaster strikes?

Strengths: The characters in this book feel so real that at times my heart ached for the sorrows that they are struggling with. And every character is struggling with a sorrow of some kind, even Early. And yet the way the story that Early tells of Pi and his and Jack's own journey have many parallels as they search for a way to 'right their boats' so to speak. The themes of this book are powerful ones.  The themes include the power of belief, persistence, and compassion, the consequences of actions and the struggle to deal with them.  But the most powerful theme is the theme of being lost and needing time to find oneself again amidst the sorrows of life.  The writing is beautiful and suits the story perfectly.  The setting is presented strongly but doesn't overwhelm the story, providing just the right backdrop for Jack's and Early's journey.

Weaknesses: The only weakness that I saw here was that the story wasn't completely believable, a lot of strange things happen to the two boys.  But the story is compelling enough that I could overlook this.


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