It is the close of World War II, and Jack and his mother have been waiting in landlocked Kansas for Jack’s father, a naval captain, to come home. However, just as his father is about to arrive, Jack’s mother dies. Jack soon finds himself alone in a boarding school in Maine. He is now somewhat close to his father’s new station, but feels further away from him than ever before. Maine is a strange place for a Kansas boy; Jack throws up the first time he sees the ocean, and has never rowed in his life. The strangeness continues as he crosses paths with Early Auden, a boy who inexplicably lives in an unused custodial office in the basement of one of the school buildings. Early rarely shows up for classes and stays in that basement doing what he pleases, which seems mainly to consist of listening to records, researching an uncatchable killer black bear that roams the Appalachian Trail, and retelling a secret odyssey-like story that he insists is true and that he is learning by calculating out the digits of Pi. Jack strikes up a strained friendship with Early, and during a school break finds himself pulled into an illogical and dangerous adventure: they row upriver into the mountains to seek out the great black bear of the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, they encounter threats and situations eerily similar to those faced by the wandering Pi in the stories that Early tells.
This is a fascinating coming-of-age novel with unique characters, vivid settings, mystery, adventure, and sadness. Strong themes of friendship, trust, grief, and hope run through the narrative, and the writing is filled with many other subtle connections and clues, making this a potentially great title for discussion and teaching. This is not a title I would quickly recommend to reluctant readers, but some middle grade readers will find much to enjoy and value here, as will teachers looking for a fresh title to use in class (remember to get it approved and added to the novel list first.) This is a worthy follow-up to Vanderpool’s Newbery-winning debut (Moon Over Manifest) and a strong Newbery contender itself.
Review by Joshua Whiting, Granite District Library Specialist
Rating: ★★★★✩ (4 stars)
Interest Level: Grades 5-8
Author Website: www.clarevanderpool.com
Written by Clare Vanderpool
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 8, 2013
ISBN: 9780385742092 (hardcover)