I picked up Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early because it was the book of the month for January at my local Goodreads Book Club. I’ve been a lurker there for several years and this is the first time that I managed to actually follow through a read-along even if I still have a long way to go in actually participating in the discussion. I’m so glad I did, because honestly no book could’ve opened the year better than this. It’s five-stars fantastic.
Navigating Early introduced me to two of the most unforgettable literary characters I’ve read in a while: Jack, the aloof new boy at school, and Early, the eccentric loner. Both of them are so removed from the world they live in that they eventually were drawn towards each other, forming perhaps one of the most unexpected, yet extremely life-affirming friendships ever.
You have Jack and the power of his memories: of being haunted by the distant happiness of his past, his mother who loved poetry and metaphors and who said goodbye too soon, and a seemingly-detached father who once upon a time taught him the names of the stars but is secretly groping around the language of forgiveness. And then you have Early and his brilliant imagination: of number and colors and stories of heroes, of bravely going after journeys without the promise of return, of finding things that are lost, of listening to Billie Holiday when it rains, of the stubbornness of never giving up on people.
My feet were heavy, and the woods closed in around us. There was only darkness and danger in front of us. And now there were dogs and pirates behind us. Early’s quest had gone on long enough. It was time to turn back. I opened my mouth to say so, but Early spoke first.
“Jackie?” Early said again.
“Thank you for coming with me.”
For a moment I didn’t know how to answer him. I could be honest and say, I think you’re crazy and we’re both crazy for looking for this stupid bear. Or maybe, I know you want your brother to be alive, but he’s just not, and nothing is going to bring him back. Or, I only came because my dad didn’t show up and I didn’t want to be alone.
Then the moment passed, my feet kept moving, and all I said was “You’re welcome.“
My gut, ladies and gentlemen, wrenches.
Jack and Early are unknowingly bound together by the sadness of being left behind and together they learn how to bear the weight of growing up and letting go, of acknowledging the stunning pain of loss and the extraordinary strength of sheer will to endure it.
Did I cry? Hell yes. I admit with zero shame that there were actual tears shed towards the end when Early was telling Jack how similar his brother Fisher was to Jack’s father and for the first time Jack sees his dad in a whole new light after years of having misunderstood him.
“He made your bed and sorted your sock drawer. He loves you.”
I suppose that to Early, sorting a sock drawer would be an expression of love. Maybe my dad looked at it that way too. I didn’t answer. Early’s retelling of all that I told him over the past couple of months hit me like a slap in the face. My face flushed. Was it from shame or anger?
“But he also took down all of Mom’s stuff in the house,” I said. “He was trying to get rid of anything that reminded him of her. He packed it all up. What about that?”
Early didn’t say anything. I’d stumped him on that one. Not even he could come up with an explanation.
He thought, then answered quietly. “Maybe he packed it up and is carrying it. Like it’s a burden.”
Do I still cry when I read it? Oh my god yes. It’s the kind of book that I’d very much gladly shove down the throats of everyone I know because IT IS THAT GOOD. If you are reading this, drop everything and read it. You’re welcome.
This is all you need to know about it: it tells the story of the greatest adventure of all time—finding your way back home.