Saturday, April 27, 2013

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Clare Vanderpool knows how to craft a satisfying story. Early and Jack become unlikely friends when Jack is sent from Kansas to Maine. Early is a strange boy who likes to listen to certain music on days of the week, sleep in the custodian's workroom, sort jelly beans, and spew facts like Old Faithful. His made-up stories about Pi are strange as well. And not Pi from the "Life of Pi" but Pi as in the number pi, the 3.14 blah-blah-blah, or the number-that-never-ends. Jack doesn't want to listen to Early talk about Pi but he finds himself getting sucked into the story even though his mind resists it. I felt the same way at first but then found myself trying to figure out whose story Pi's mirrored amongst the characters.

Jack's grieving the recent death of his mom and he's angry at his dad for sending him to a boarding school in Maine from his home in Kansas. Early's dad has died too, although Early doesn't talk about it. Early is more focused on the loss his older brother, Fisher, who was killed in World War II. Jack has a rough start at school and doesn't fit in with the other students. The two misfits form an unlikely bond when they decide to run off from school on a quest to find a great black bear on the Appalachian Trail, but they find more than that and learn to face their grief.

Idioms, similes, and metaphors, "rain like cats and dogs" throughout this story. But while the idioms Jack's mom used showed wisdom and were an interesting play on words, the idioms the boys used were as tired as "raining like cats and dogs." Jack, in particular, thinks and speaks idioms so much I noticed it. I couldn't figure out why the author was purposefully doing this except toward the end when it reflected the boys internal changes of understanding their grief. When Early says, Mrs. Johannsen "beamed like a lighthouse" only to explain to Jack that it is an expression. "She was beaming more like a candle. A candle set in a window, but a closed window, so there's no breeze to make the candle flicker"; the change shows that Early has grown in his understanding that Mrs. Johannsen has realized her purpose and can move on from her grief. Whereas she was lost before, she was able to find closure with her son and become a steady flame versus a flickering one. This is reflected in the boys internal journey of dealing with their own losses. While I found the idioms tiring and baffling at first by the end I could see what the author was doing.

I admire Vanderpool's plot building and writing craft. How can you not delight in sentences like this, "I still saw the other boys in class and around the dorm, but ever since that night in Sam and Robbie Dean's dorm room and the talk of the Fish, the awkwardness lingered like empty space on one of Early's records. It whirled in circles, making it hard to jump back in." Jack's loneliness is painful and the boys talking about boats using alien words creates an atmosphere quite similar to living in a foreign country. I empathized with Jack and the loss of his mom and home as Vanderpool expertly crafts his ache in a short time.

Depending on your patience as a reader, I found the beginning third slogged and some scenes seemed a bit clunky versus seamless. The ring in the pool left me scratching my head along with Mr. Bane seeming like a sensitive teacher at first to an unobservant one as Jack blunders about as he tries to steer the boat by himself. The educator side of me knows the liabilities and caution taken when dealing with kids and water. This might have been one of those cases where first person point of view forced characters to do things in order to forward the plot. I also felt this way when the two soldiers talked. It seemed rushed and I would have liked third person point of view and knowing what the two discussed.

Jack is very authentic in the way he acts as a teenager and deals with his grief. His mean act toward Early made him more real to me and yet he also thinks deeply about things and changes to be a better person. He learns from his mistakes and for me that is an endearing character. Early is developed well too with his odd quirks that make him likeable and his not so likeable traits that irritate Jack at times and make him tune Early out such as when Early sounds like a Thesaurus or dictionary or encyclopedia. I found some supporting characters too stereotypical for my tastes such as the librarian and Gunnar, but I don't think younger readers are going to notice this. The ending is very emotional and perhaps wrapped up to the point of feeling somewhat contrived but I prefer that to the opposite. I can think of many students who would like this book because of its touching end. A nice story for your library.

Reading Level 6.2
4 Smileys

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