by Clare Vanderpool
First sentence: “If I’d know 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.”
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Review copy provided by my place of employment.
Additional disclaimer: I’ve chatted with the author on numerous occasions when she’s stopped into Watermark.
It’s 1945, and Jack Baker’s father has come back to Kansas from serving in World War II. Except, he came home to a son he doesn’t recognize and a wife who recently died. So, he packs up the house and tows Jack up to Maine to attend a boarding school near the Naval station where he’s based.
None of this sits well with Jack. He’s a Kansas boy, through and through: loving the wide-open spaces, the sky, the heat, the wheat fields. And so Maine, especially Maine in the fall, throws him for a loop. Not to mention that he’s lost his anchor — his mother — and he’s adrift in the sea of boys and New England customs (like rowing), that are completely foreign to him.
Until he meets Early Auden, a boy who only listens to Billie Holiday when it rains; who lives in the school basement and only comes to class when he feels like it; and — most amazingly — has all the digits of pi memorized, seeing colors, patterns, and stories in the numbers. It’s all overwhelming for Jack; he really has no idea how to deal with everything. Until fall break, when Early leads Jack on an adventure, both literal and metaphorical, to find something that neither boy thought they were looking for.
It’s an evocative novel, one which explores loss and belonging, of being uprooted and searching for a place to fit. To be honest, everything I said about Moon Over Manifest works here as well: even though the novel isn’t set in Kansas, Jack’s love for his home state comes through loud and clear. (And after 6 1/2 years here, I’m beginning to see what it is to love about being here.) But, Vanderpool also creates a sense of the Maine wilderness, of the early- to mid-fall glory of the woods, of tramping around in the rain. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two climates.
In fact, the thing I enjoyed most about the novel was the way Vanderpool juxtaposed elements: Kansas and Maine; the death of a mother with the death of a brother; Early and Jack’s story with that of Pi’s (pi the number becomes Pi the character in Early’s mind; the numbers tell his story.); the various characters Early and Jack meet on their journey. It kept me interested throughout, wondering how everything would weave together in the end.
Actually, the end was probably my least favorite part: while it came to a conclusion, I felt something was, not quite fitting together. It doesn’t have a happily-ever-after bow — something I appreciated — but it didn’t quite sit well with me either.
But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise excellent book.