It’s 1945, and Jack Baker’s father has returned home to Kansas after serving in the Navy during World War II. But he came back to a son he doesn’t recognize and a wife who recently died. Not quite knowing what else to do, he packs up the house and takes Jack back to Maine in order to attend the boarding school near the Naval station where he’s based.
It’s an understatement to say Jack is not happy with the arrangements. His mother’s death has hit him hard, and he’s mourning her loss. Additionally, he’s a Kansas boy through and through: he adores the wide-open spaces, the sky, the heat, the wheat fields. Which means that Maine — between the fall leaves and the ocean, not to mention the strange New England customs like rowing — is more than unfamiliar. It’s downright foreign.
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 overwhelms Jack; he really has no idea how to deal with boarding school, Maine or, especially, Early. That is, until fall break, when Early leads Jack on an adventure, both literal and metaphorical, to find something that neither boy thought he was looking for.
It’s an evocative novel, one which explores loss and belonging, of being uprooted and searching for a place to fit. Even though it’s not set in Kansas, it’s still at heart a Kansas book: Jack’s groundedness comes from having grown up in Kansas, and his love for his home state comes through loud and clear. 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, one of the things 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.
Rated: Mild for some violence, but nothing graphic.