I had high hopes for Navigating Early, as I love historical fiction and was excited to see an autistic character included in such a setting. The author, Clare Vanderpool, won a Newbery Medal for her previous book, Moon Over Manifest, and a Michael L. Printz Honor for Navigating Early. Since these are two of the most prestigious honors for children’s literature, I expected that the book would be engaging and full of interesting details. It seemed like she had done her research: the book contains an author’s note explaining why she decided to write an autistic character, a short resource list with memoirs and information about pi, and references to her research trips and interactions with autistic youth. If I had read these before the book, however, I would have been prepared for how heavily Vanderpool relies on tropes to portray an autistic character.
(Note: this review contains spoilers.)
The book is set at a boarding school in Maine immediately after World War II and focuses on Jack Baker’s arrival at the school and subsequent adventures. Jack is from Kansas while all of the other boys are from New England, and he immediately stands out for not knowing the school legends or how to row crew. He notices a strange boy who slips in and out of class, showing up only to pick fights with teachers when he disagrees with their lessons. This is Early Auden, who Jack slowly befriends. Early likes classical music, white noise, math, and his frog Bucky. He lives in the basement of the school, where he can keep Bucky and his collections without being disturbed. Early doesn’t have any friends, as the other boys find him strange or argumentative. He tells Jack the story of Polaris, a character based on the mathematical constant. Polaris, or Pi for short, sets out to be the first navigator, leaving behind his family. His story can be read by the series of numbers representing different hurdles or characters, which also appear with colors and textures to Early.
During a break from school, when neither can return to their parents, the boys set out on a quest to find a black bear on the Appalachian Trail that comes with a high reward. Early won’t admit it, but he’s also searching for his missing older brother, Auden, a soldier who is presumed dead. Unlike Early, Auden was a popular athlete whose abilities are the stuff of legend at the boarding school. The boys steal the boat that Early and Auden built and set off with Bucky and a few provisions. Early leads the way, using the story of Pi’s journey to predict what happens next. He doesn’t use a map or compass to guide them, relying instead on his memory of pi and what the numbers mean. The boys ultimately find pirates, a hermit woodsman, skeletons, Auden, and the bear – all mysteriously predicted by Early’s story. It turns out that while Pi’s life follows the number sequence of pi and the travels of Early and Jack, it also represents the path that Auden took back from fighting in France. All of the different plot lines come together cleanly and Early and Jack return to school as heroes.
It’s obvious from the beginning that Vanderpool wants us to read Early as autistic through his personality and activities. He meticulously collects records that can only be played on certain days, he memorizes pi extensively, he loves comic books, he’s fixated on building and guiding crew boats, he has synesthesia, and he’s difficult and unpopular. Early Auden is the most stereotypical autistic character that someone could create.
In the aforementioned author’s note, she refers to her mother having a dream about a young savant with an extraordinary ability to play any piece after hearing it once. Vanderpool then found Daniel Tammet’s book, Born on a Blue Day. Tammet is included on her list of resources, along with Temple Grandin’s memoir and books about pi and boats. Tammet is known for having memorized 22,000 digits of pi as well as seeing numbers with specific colors, shapes, and textures. Sound familiar? Vanderpool acknowledges that Tammet’s life served as a springboard for creating Early, but she doesn’t commit to Early being autistic. She alternates a few times in her authors note, initially describing Early as someone who “might be diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism” and a savant (although neither of these terms is used in the book for the sake of historical accuracy), but switching to the claim that “Early is not meant to be a representation of the autistic child. He is a unique and special boy with an amazing mind, a beautiful spirit, and an unexplainable gift.” Although she explains her extensive research trips to Maine and the numerous people she consulted with, she only references meeting one autistic child by chance: someone in her son’s class.
I have to assume that if Vanderpool thoroughly researched every aspect of her book and references this in her authors note, then her brief mentions to reading Born on a Blue Day and knowing one autistic person must have been the extent of her interest in autism and savants. It always makes me sad to see this sort of depiction of autistic characters in literature. A very small percentage of autistics are savants, which you would never know from our representations in the media. The effect of this is an assumption that all autistics must be savants or that those who are “high functioning” have special worth (“high functioning” is a deeply problematic term that I personally do not use, but Vanderpool uses it to describe Early). I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me why I’m not gifted in math or why I can’t count cards.
People like Early do exist, and it’s great to see historical fiction that includes a disabled character, but it’s also clear that Vanderpool doesn’t have the experience or knowledge necessary to write a well-rounded autistic character. Early gets a little too close to the trope of the magical or extra-special autistic for my comfort, particularly since his role in the plot and his value to Jack are based entirely on his abilities. Jack needs him and the story of Pi to navigate but he regularly makes fun of Early for being obsessive and trying too hard to make the story fit. Towards the beginning of the book, Jack is terrible at rowing until Early helps him rebuild a boat and serves as his coxswain, after which Jack lies to him to avoid partnering up during a race. All of his classmates and teachers mock Early for claiming that pi doesn’t have an ending, until the end of the book, where they attend a lecture and Early corrects the guest professor. There’s a surprising lack of respect for a character who is necessary for any of the plot to happen. Ultimately, Navigating Early falls into tropes that could have been avoided with better research – like a few conversations with autistic people.