Shortly after his arrival at Morton Hill, Jack discovers Early Auden, a classmate who definitely falls on the autism spectrum. It's the 1940's, though, and those who fall on the spectrum are simply viewed as "odd." Early only attends school when he feels like it, he believes his brother, who was reported dead in the war, is still alive, and he lives in a workshop in the bowels of the school. Jack doesn't know what to make of Early, but he tolerates, and even enjoys his company, just the same.
All Early wants is to find his brother, but the preponderance of evidence points to his brother having died as the result of a bomb blast as his squad of soldiers attempted to blow up a bridge. Based on what he knows about his brother, Early believes he would have escaped; furthermore, Early believes his brother is hiding out in an isolated section of Northern Maine, along the Kennebec River. Jack doesn't believe a word of what Early thinks, but he goes along on the adventure just the same.
As I read Navigating Early, I couldn't help but think of all the books that have been recently published with characters on the autism spectrum. Interestingly, though, the terms "autism" and "Asperger's" don't come up. They can't. Back in the 1940's, someone exhibiting this sort of behavior would have been viewed as "odd.' Early's idiosyncrasies are just that - idiosyncrasies. They aren't labeled, and I found that refreshing because Jack didn't refer to Early as his friend with a social disorder; he accepted Early for who he was. Yes, it took the better portion of the story, but acceptance happened nonetheless. I liked that. I'm not sure if Vanderpool did this consciously or unconsciously.
Navigating Early reminded me of Okay for Now in that it's a very character-driven story. You have the whole father-son angst, the new setting for the main character, and a riveting journey that leaves you anticipating what might happen next.