Navigating Early


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Year Published

Book Review

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool is a stand-alone novel about how an autistic classmate changed Jack Baker’s life.

Plot Summary

World War II has just ended, and 13-year-old Jack Baker’s mother has died. His father, a Navy captain, moves him from Kansas to Morton Hill Academy boarding school in Maine. Lonely and grieving, Jack meets an autistic savant student named Early Auden.

Early sometimes attends class, but he mainly follows his own strange routines while living in an old custodian’s workshop. Early is obsessed with the number Pi. He spends a good portion of the book telling Jack stories about a person named Pi, who had fantastic adventures.

Early becomes agitated anytime the math teacher suggests scholars are trying to prove the number Pi may be finite. Early has many other quirks, including his need to listen to certain records on certain days and his obsession with a gigantic Appalachian black bear he’s read about in newspapers.

Rowing is an important sport at Morton Hill Academy, but Jack has no experience. After he embarrasses himself in class, Early teaches him how to row. Early sits in the boat with him to call commands, since rowers face backward and can’t see where they’re going.

Jack has seen a photo of a famous alumni known as “The Fish,” whom all the boys seem to admire. He decides to shoot for some fame of his own by winning the school’s regatta. Early spends many hours helping Jack fix up a boat and improve his rowing skills.

Pride wins out over loyalty on the day of the race, and Jack decides to row without Early in the boat. He loses the race badly and mangles the boat in the process. Only afterward does he see how much his behavior hurt Early.

Jack’s father sends word he’s unable to pick the boy up for Christmas break. No one knows Jack and Early are alone on campus. Early forgives Jack for leaving him out of the race and urges him to go along on a quest. Early says they will use an immaculate boat called The Maine that has been enshrined in the boathouse as a tribute to “The Fish.”

When Jack argues they can’t take such a valuable artifact, Early reveals that “The Fish,” Fisher Auden, was his brother. Fisher reportedly died while destroying a French bridge during the war. Early is convinced his brother, like Pi, is still alive.

The boys row on the Kennebec River toward the Appalachian mountains in search of the great bear and Fisher. Early pulls Jack into his elaborate stories about Pi’s adventures, and the boys’ journey begins to mirror Pi’s tale. Magical realism takes over as they encounter pirates, a grieving mother, the bear and a dead body. They also find Fisher alive, too overwhelmed by his wartime losses to return to civilization.

In the aftermath of their trip, Jack’s father arrives, and they begin to develop a stronger relationship. Jack’s father also helps Fisher rebuild his life.

Christian Beliefs

The school’s creeds and traditions sometimes include Christian principles, hymns or prayers.

Other Belief Systems

Magical realism is a large part of this story.

Authority Roles

Jack often remembers the wisdom and kindness of his deceased mother. His father has been at sea most of Jack’s life, so they are strangers after Mom’s death. In the end, Jack and his father spend more time together and move toward becoming a family. Mr. Blane, the enthusiastic math teacher, encourages the boys to think outside the box. He shares new theories in the math world and arranges for them to attend an important lecture on Pi.

Profanity & Violence

A bear mauls a pirate, but it isn’t described in graphic detail.

Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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