60 pages 2 hours read

Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


Navigating Early (2013) is a novel by Clare Vanderpool. A coming-of-age book, it follows 13-year-old Jack Baker and his friend, Early Auden, who set off on a quest together to look for a great black bear, shaped by the story of the number pi. The book explores themes of grief and loss, empathy, and alternate perspectives.

Clare Vanderpool is an award-winning American author who writes children’s books. Her novel, Moon Over Manifest (2010), won the John Newberry Medal in 2011 and made the New York Times Best Seller list the same year.

This guide is based on the Random House Children’s Books Kindle Edition.

Plot Summary

After his mother’s death, 13-year-old John “Jack” Baker III from Kansas is enrolled in Morton Hill Academy, a boarding school in Maine closest to his father, Captain John Baker Jr.’s posting at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Jack is still grieving his mother’s death and does not feel close to his father, who has been away fighting in the European Theater since Jack was nine. At school, Jack meets Early Auden, a classmate whose parents have both passed away. He attends whichever classes he pleases and lives in a workshop he has made for himself instead of the dorms. Early walks out of math class on the first day when the teacher discusses the number pi and how a professor, Dr. Douglas Stanton, is working to prove that the never-ending number does, indeed, end. Early keeps to himself and has strange mannerisms, and the other boys find him odd.

Jack goes rowing for the first time, and he struggles to handle his worn-down boat; Early, who is watching, suggests improvements to his technique and offers to help rebuild the boat. Later, Jack learns from the other boys about a legendary athlete at Morton Hill, nicknamed “The Fish,” whose boat, the Maine, is enshrined in the school boathouse. The Fish enlisted after graduation and was killed in action during the war. Early and Jack rebuild Jack’s boat, then practice rowing together to prepare for the Fall Regatta; Early volunteers to be Jack’s navigator. However, on the day of the regatta, because of inclement weather, John’s shore leave is canceled, and he cannot visit as planned. An upset Jack ditches Early during the race and rows on his own, struggling to navigate and wrecking the boat in the process.

All the boys except Jack leave the school for fall break; Jack discovers Early in his workshop, preparing to set out on his own quest. Jack volunteers to accompany Early on his quest. Early is setting out to find Pi—he does not believe the number is ending, as it reveals a story to him, which he has been narrating to Jack. Early plans to take the Maine on his quest. Jack learns that The Fish was Early’s brother, Fisher Auden.

Jack rows as Early navigates and fills him in on the rest of Pi’s story. Jack learns that Early still believes Fisher is alive and that Early will find him, as Pi’s story parallels Fisher’s. The boys are found by a barge full of woodsmen who haul them aboard and tether the Maine to the barge. The men dock and put the boys to work, hauling barrels of gunpowder off the barge. The boys head up to the nearby inn to ask the barge’s captain, MacScott, for their boat back, but he refuses. MacScott is tracking a bear, the biggest one recorded on the Appalachian Trail. Early tells him about Pi, who is also looking for a Great Bear like him.

There is an explosion when the barrels accidentally catch fire, and MacScott and his men take off in the barge with the Maine with them, leaving the boys no option but to walk. When trying to cross the river, Jack slips and falls in but is rescued by a woodsman named Gunnar, who takes the boys home. At Early’s request, he gives the boys lessons in survival and tracking. The boys also learn Gunnar’s background: He was a paid fighter while working the docks in Portland. After he met and fell in love with a woman named Emmaline, he tried to quit, but his boss had him almost killed in a fight for trying to leave. Gunnar accidentally killed his opponent while trying to defend himself; he barely made it out alive but was too ashamed to face Emmaline again and made a home for himself in the woods of Maine.

MacScott and his men track the boys down to the cabin, but Gunnar manages to keep them at bay. The boys set out again but temporarily get lost in the woods until they chance upon an old woman, Eustasia, who seems to think that Jack is her long-lost son, Martin, and takes them home for dinner. Years ago, Martin went out with a new rifle one day and never came back; Eustasia has been waiting for Martin to return ever since. Now that she believes he is back, she is ready to die. She learns Jack is not Martin as the boys leave the house.

The boys come across the big bear’s prints and begin tracking it. As they continue north following the bear, they come across a prehistoric gorge with stone slabs and a waterfall. Behind the fall are a series of stone caverns, in which the boys discover Martin’s skeleton. MacScott tracks the boys down to the caverns; the boys learn that MacScott was Martin’s friend, and he accidentally shot Martin dead after getting upset about a bet between them.

The boys run away from MacScott, but when trying to climb up a rocky incline, Jack is bitten by a snake and falls down. MacScott corners them, but before he can shoot, the big bear emerges. MacScott shoots and misses, and the bear mauls him before disappearing. Jack loses consciousness from the snakebite, while Early has a seizure. A bearded woodsman arrives and helps Early before carrying Jack to safety to Eustasia’s house. When he wakes up the next day, Early tells Jack that Eustasia has passed away.

Jack discovers that the woodsman who helped them is Fisher—he survived the enemy attack on his squad’s shelter, something Early had deduced by following newspaper articles about the events and the clues they provided. However, Fisher refuses Early’s request that he return home, leaving Early heartbroken. The boys make their way back to Morton Hill.

Jack’s father, John, arrives at the school. John takes the boys to find Fisher in the woods the next day and has a private soldier-to-soldier conversation with him, convincing him to return. Fisher is taken to the hospital, where he is treated and recovers from malnourishment. John also drives the boys to the Fall Mathematical Institute to see Dr. Douglas Stanton present his thesis on pi. Once Dr. Stanton is done, Early walks up and corrects his calculations, presenting proof by contradiction. John apologizes to Jack for taking him so far from home; however, Jack now likes it here and asks John to help him build a boat to replace the one he wrecked in the regatta. The Epilogue reveals that Jack discovers that Miss B., the school librarian, is Gunnar’s Emmaline and hands over a letter Gunnar had entrusted Jack with mailing to her. Early finds a place with the other boys, especially after they are impressed by Early and Jack’s adventures. Early and Jack remain close friends, with Jack reflecting on how Early kept him from being swept away.

The story of Pi is interspersed throughout the main narrative: Early asserts the beginning number one in 3.14 to be a young boy named Polaris, nicknamed Pi, with three being his mother and four his father. Pi has many questions and sets sail around the world to find answers. His mother tells him to navigate using the Great Bear constellation, as it is a mother bear looking over her children. Pi encounters numerous adventures along the way; when he returns home, he finds his village destroyed and everyone dead. Heartbroken, he sets out again, sailing aimlessly as he has lost sight of the Great Bear. He finds his way into the catacombs, an ancient burial ground where lost souls roam, and disappears for a long time; eventually, his father, who is still alive and also grieving, finds him and pulls him out. Reunited, they leave the catacombs together.