Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Image “Why?
Why did everything get turned upside down? Why did my mom have to die? Why am I following Early, with his endless stories of Pi, on a crazy bear hunt?” [p.150]

Following the death of his mother, at the end of World War II, Jack Auden is sent away from his home in Kansas to a boarding school in Maine by his Navy officer dad.  His dad had been gone during the war, and Jack hardly knew  him when he returned for the funeral, but he had gone to the school in Maine and insists that Jack leave everyone he knows to go there.

Feeling lost at the school, Jack meets Early Auden, an eccentric boy, an orphan who occasionally comes to math class, who wants to go on a quest to find a great brown bear on the Appalachian Trail. Early is also searching for his brother, fisher.  Fisher had been a hero at the school, a champion rower, and a war hero who died with his squad in France.  Woven in to all this is the story of Pi and his quest for the Polaris and then to return home to the Great Mother Bear.

At night when all of the school has left for break and Jack’s father hasn’t been able to come get him as had been planned, Jack finds Early packing up to go on his quest.  He too gets drawn in and they set out in Fisher’s boat, the Maine on Early’s quest.

The story of their quest, at times surreal, dreamy, action packed and pain filled alternates with stories of Pi’s quest to return home.  Subtle humor  surfaces occasionally like the scene where they are going fly fishing and Jack tells Early to wait so he can help Early put on his waders, while he, Jack stumbles around, only to look over and see Early “in full gear , already out in the middle of the stream…”

On this adventure, both boys discover difficult truths, but though it is Earl’s quest, Jack is the one who in many ways is redeemed.   Navigating Early is an amazingly layered book, so artfully woven together. The two boy’s personalities are so different yet they mostly support one another and bring out the best in each other. The supporting characters are so varied and imaginative; they seem to be part of a film.   While I sometimes got bogged down a bit during the Pi sequences with their mythic overtones,  they felt essential to the workings of the story. This is a moving book of great tales and stories.

“How do you take another step when you can’t see the path in front of you?  But wasn’t that what I’d been doing all along my journey with Early?  I put my foot out where I could picture Early putting his, took a deep breath, and leaped.  I landed on solid ground.” (P. 232)

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Etiquette and Espionage

Etiquette and Espionage, the first in the series called Finishing School by Gail Carriger,  is another boarding school novel for theImagetraining of murderers and villains, but this time in the guise of a finishing school for “young women of quality.” Sophronia is recruited for the school, her mother thinking she’s finally going to be taught how to be a young lady. This rough and tumble girl from not the “best” of families, though gentry, goes off with the headmistress, who turns out to be fake, and travels to the school with another new student, Dimity, a girl from an evil family who feints at the sight of blood. With them is Pillover, Dimity’s brother, who is on his way to his own boarding school, Bunsen’s, for evil geniuses.

Along the way they are attacked by skyway men. Sophronia comes to the rescue, but Monique takes the credit. What is Monique hiding? This is a fast moving, fun romp filled with steam, pumps,and pistons as well as a werewolf and vampire. Moira Quirk does a great job with the narration. The best parts of the narration involve the teachers, who with upper class accents, instruct the students on the proper way to use a handkerchief, walk, etc. all to be better spies.

Sophronia: “We had lessons in knife fighting from a werewolf.”
Pillover:”Any reputable school ought to have at least one vampire professor.”

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

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Delphine, Vonetta and Fern return to Brooklyn after a visit to their mother, Cecile, who’s a member of the Black Panther Party, in Oakland, Ca. When they arrive in their Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood they find there’s been changes, though their grandmother, Big Ma,is still as strict as always and expects Delphine to keep everything in line. Their father, who seems happier and was whistling during the car ride home, has a new lady friend, Miss Marva Hendrix, and the new group, The Jackson Five, will soon be performing at Madison Square Garden.

Big Ma doesn’t really approve of either. After much pleading, the girls win the right to go to the concert if they save half the money by doing chores and Miss Hendrix, whom Delphine doesn’t really like, volunteers to take them. Soon Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam, but he’s really changed. His presence brings joy then pain to the family. Delphine also has to contend with changes at school where she is the tallest girl and sometimes on the outs with her best friend Frieda. Also, she’s surprised to find that she has a different teacher than the one she expected, and he is also strict.

I love the title of this book. It is from the postscripts of letters from her mother, telling her to act eleven and not try to be older, even though she wants to spread her wings. Delphine writes to her mother regularly with her problems and receives spare, poetic replies and reminders that she is not grown and to be who she is.

I like the way williams-Garcia sets the mood through rather spare vignettes, by not belaboring points. We get a good sense of Delphine’s class mates, who she’s tight with and who not so much by watching them in action, not by explication. I now want to read the first in the series, One Crazy Summer, about their summer in Oakland.