Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early

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Navigating Early Summary

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Navigating Early is a 2013 coming-of-age novel by American novelist Clare Vanderpool. It tells the story of a young man named Jack Baker and his friend, Early, who seek out Early’s brother, a U.S. soldier during World War II who is presumed dead. Of Navigating Early, Kirkus Reviews writes, “Vanderpool delivers another winning picaresque about memories, personal journeys, interconnectedness—and the power of stories.”

At the beginning of the novel, Jack Baker is a happy child living in Kansas until his mother suddenly and tragically dies of a brain aneurysm. The night before, Jack had been angry with his mother. And so now he feels an extraordinary amount of guilt at having caused her death. Because Jack needs a guardian in the wake of his mother’s death, his father returns from duty as a naval officer from World War II after four years away from his family.

Jack and his father are strangers to one another. Jack calls him “The Captain” rather than dad, which is probably due to the fact that his father himself signs his letters to Jack as “Captain Baker.” To be closer together, Jack is enrolled at a school in Maine, not far from where his father is stationed in the city of Portsmouth. The school is the prestigious Morton Hill Academy in Cape Fealty, Maine, and Jack takes an immediate disliking to it. He fails to excel at rowing, which is Morton Hill’s signature sport, and he struggles to make friends.

Finally, however, Jack makes a friend in the odd classmate named Early Auden. Early is a preternaturally intelligent boy whose brother, Fisher or “Fish,” is presumed dead after fighting in World War II. Early tries to help Jack with his rowing and even calls him “Jackie,” which is something only his mother called him. Although it appears that Jack and Early have little in common, the two are both dealing with profound loss, and therefore find solace in one another.

Despite this sense of loss, Early is certain that Fish is alive and conducts his own research to prove his whereabouts. Early begins to refer to his brother as “Pi,” a reference to the legend of Polaris and the Ursa Major constellation. Polaris, whose mother calls him by the name “Pi,” goes out wandering one day and gets lost among the stars. Rather than being dead, Early thinks this his brother has suffered the same fate, but that he can be located. In one scene, a professor poses the theory that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the number known as “pi” is not actually infinite. Early takes offense to this theory, believing that if the number pi is infinite, then his brother who he now calls “Pi” must still be alive.

Early resolves to undertake a quest to search for his brother. He asks Jack if he wants to go but Jack, who now enjoys rowing, declines because he wants to impress his father at an upcoming regatta boat race. But when Jack receives a telegraph from his father stating that, due to inclement weather, he will not be able to attend the regatta, Jack decides to accompany Early. The pair use a boat they call the Maine to head toward Europe, where Early’s brother was last seen alive. But their boat is overtaken by pirates who pull Jack and Early aboard their barge and pull their boat to shore. When they ask for their boat back, the leader of the pirates—a man named MacScott—says it isn’t their boat anymore.
As their adventure progresses, it becomes more and more surreal. They encounter a man named Gunnar with whom they fly fish with and discuss the Bible. The lines between reality and fantasy, mathematics and religion, begin to blur. There is a story of a bear that attacks MacScott, their antagonist, and the bear becomes symbolic of Ursa Major, the constellation where Polaris or “Pi” is located.

Eventually Jack and Early are successful in discovering a lumberjack who they surmise is Fish or “Pi.” Early was correct to believe his brother was alive and, in the end, Navigating Early is a profound story of hope in the face of unimaginable loss. It is difficult to say how much of the book’s second half we are to take literally as readers. The tone is dramatically different from the more realistic approach taken in the first half by Vanderpool. Maybe in the “literal” reality of the book, Fish is dead just as the U.S. military claims.

But to take the book completely literally is to miss the point. The point is in the act of having hope, and striving forward as Jack and Early do on their adventure. For example, there is no doubt at any point that Jack’s mother is not coming back. But that doesn’t mean his journey lacks meaning. And so regardless of whether or not they recover Pi alive, their journey away from the boarding school has profound meaning and can provide a sense of solace for any reader who is dealing with the same kind of profound loss.