1945 has been a tough year for 13 year old Jack Baker. His father, the Captain, returned from World War II, but things weren’t the same because Jack’s mother is dead. Instead of staying in Kansas with his mother’s family, the Captain sends Jack to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. At Morton Hill Academy Jack feels like a fish out of water, or rather, a fish in water for the first time. He tries to make friends, but after a series of humiliating boating events Jack spends less time with the regular boys and more time with the strange and enigmatic Early Auden. Jack isn’t sure what to think of Early, a loner who sees colors, shapes, textures, and stories in the never-ending numbers of pi, but soon the two are working together to rebuild a shabby boat. When Jack’s father has to cancel their fall break vacation, Jack and Early set off on a life-changing adventure into the Appalachian Mountains. As they travel, searching for the Great Appalachian Bear and Early’s missing brother, Early tells the epic saga of the navigator Pi that he sees in the numbers of pi. At first Jack scoffs at the story, but soon he begins to see coincidences between their journey and Pi’s. Pirates, volcanoes, ancient ones, caves, skeletons, and the Great Bear herself. Is it really coincidence? Or is it like Jack’s mother used to say, “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload”?
Mixing historical fiction with a dash of magical realism this story of an unlikely friendship addresses issues of grief, loss, and guilt. Although it moves at a quiet pace, the adventure and survival elements will keep readers intrigued. Several plot twists make this unpredictable story satisfying and unique. The stories about Pi are woven into the larger narrative, which is written from Jack’s point of view. At times these stories provide a counterpoint to the boys’ journey, while at others the stories act as a revealing mirror. In the author’s note at the back of the book Vanderpool writes that today Early would probably be diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism and labeled a savant because of his amazing mathematic talents. Her inspiration for this character was taken from a real person, Daniel Tammet, who was autistic and saw numbers as shapes, colors, and textures. Vanderpool also provides insight into the factual information about pi she incorporated into the story, as well as what she created to better serve the story.
Read the first few pages of this book to get an idea of Jack’s sensitive and thoughtful voice.
*Early listens to certain music depending on the day and the weather. If you’re reading/discussing this book over several days play music according to Early’s schedule:
Monday – Louis Armstrong
Tuesday – Quiet
Wednesday – Frank Sinatra
Thursday – Quiet
Friday – Glenn Miller
Saturday – Quiet
Sunday – Mozart
Rain – Billie Holiday
*Other books by Vanderpool:
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes
Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin
RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 11+ / Grade 6+