Happy Pi Day! Yep, that's right - it's 3/14, also written as 3.14, which is of course the beginning sequence of that famously irrational number itself, pi. Every year this day sneaks up on me, which is kind of ironic since it's always the same date. But anyhoo, I always remember too late to do something special.
Luckily this year, however, I just finished reading a book that ties into Pi Day perfectly: the new novel by Newbery Medalist Claire Vanderpool, author of the incredible historical Moon Over Manifest. This new outing is also a historical, one that is similar in some ways to her award-winning debut but different enough to stand all on its own. Navigating Early is a wild ride of a novel, full of meditations on loss and loneliness, friendship and the power of belief. Yet it's not an introspective read -- this is a book about adventure and exploration, with plenty of action to keep the plot moving along.
It starts quietly, with Jack Baker, who has moved to Maine from Kansas after the death of his mother. Jack's father, a military man, is at loose ends with the loss of his wife, so he decides a boarding school is the best solution for Jack. And so the boy enters Morton Hill Academy, where he quickly makes a friend -- Early Auden, a decidedly quirky schoolmate who rarely goes to class and lives almost entirely within his own mind. Jack doesn't pretend to understand most of what Early goes on about: a giant black bear of near-mythical proportions, timber rattlesnakes (which Early stubbornly believes live in Maine, despite common knowledge to the contrary), and a bizarre story based on the never-repeating sequences of the number pi.
But when Jack finds himself stranded at school break, teaming up with Early to go on an adventure seems like the next best choice. Jack figures it's a fools errand, seeing as Early is on a quest to find Pi, the hero of his numerically-inspired tale. Still, there's nothing better to do, so the two boys head up the Kennebec River in a rowboat, with no idea of what's in store: pirates, a volcano, an ancient woman and a giant, and of course that enormous mankiller of a bear.
The quest is what will hook readers, and it's where Vanderpool's talents as a storyteller really shine forth. Really this novel contains so many disparate elements, from the bear to the math to the rowing trip to a missing war hero. It's fascinating to watch how she weaves in the elements of Early's story about Pi, deftly bringing the mythology to life and throwing our heroes right down in the middle of it. Don't kid yourself, these boys are in real peril, and Vanderpool pulls no punches. But even as we're fleeing with them through the forest, Vanderpool's pulling at our heartstrings, making the emotional climax that much more stirring and involving.
Early Auden's a narrator I'll not soon forget, with his singular perspective and habits, and his ability to see stories in the patterns of numeric sequence. But though Jack's is a quieter voice, it's no less strong -- for its articulation of loss, and the way we're all found, in the chorus of those we draw near.
Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool, published by Random House Kids
Source: ARC provided by the publisher; opinions, however, are all my own
Sample: "If I'd known what there was to know about Early Auden, that strangest of boys, I might have been scared off, or at least kept my distance like all the others. But I was new to the Morton Hill Academy for Boys, and to Cape Fealty, Maine. Fact was, I was new to anyplace outside of northeastern Kansas."