Vanderpool novel navigates a world of surprises

“Navigating Early” by Clare Vanderpool (Delacorte, 296 pages, $16.99)

When your first book wins a major award — say, a Newbery Medal, like Wichitan Clare Vanderpool’s debut “Moon Over Manifest” did — the second book is laden with expectations. Will it be as good? Will it be a copy of the first? Will it capture the imagination?

Vanderpool, who has said she had already done quite a bit of work on “Navigating Early” before the success of “Moon Over Manifest,” hits her second book just right, with a very different story and characters but a return to timeless themes.

The narrator of “Navigating Early” is a Kansas farm boy, Jack, who finds himself placed in boarding school in Maine after the death of his mother and the return of his father, a Navy officer, to a posting on the coast after World War II. Accustomed to big skies and open spaces, Jack must learn to navigate his new world of foggy, watery landscapes and an unfamiliar culture.

He remembers his mother telling him, “Let life surprise you, Jackie” — advice we’re never too young (or too old) to follow, but often easier said than done.

Soon Jack encounters Early Auden, “that strangest of boys,” an odd little fellow who comes to class when he feels like it, challenges the teachers, and listens to Mozart, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday (only when it’s raining) in a basement workshop. Early, like Jack, is motherless, and also pines for his older brother, a onetime hero of the school who was lost in the war. Early’s eccentric mix of wisdom, brilliance, bluntness and devotion is maddening yet endearing, both to Jack and to readers.

Pi is Early’s obsession: not only is he continually calculating the number, but he has invented an epic story of Pi, a traveler, quester and navigator. Pi’s story intertwines with Jack and Early’s as they set off up a river in Early’s brother’s rowing shell looking for a giant bear, timber rattlesnakes and whatever else they might encounter. As Pi does, the boys get lost, meet a variety of colorful characters and learn some things about themselves.

The presence of Pi not just as a number but as a mythic figure is a little unexpected in a book about a couple of boys headed on a trek, but it’s a perfect metaphor, and Pi’s unpredictable adventures tie in seamlessly with Jack and Early’s.

The idea of navigating literally, by the stars and through the woods, and figuratively, among the sometimes rocky and shifting concepts of family and friendship, unites Jack and Early, and the pair with Pi. They all find their way eventually, and in doing so find their strengths and their truths.