Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool was last year's Newbery winner. Reading a bit about it in the current issue of Horn Book Magazine inspired me to take it down off of my bookshelf and read it. I'm glad that I did. It's quite lovely.
Moon Over Manifest is a historical novel set in the small town of Manifest, Kansas in both 1918 and 1936. In 1936, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker arrives in Manifest, sent there by her father for the summer while he works at a railway job. Unsure of why her father sent her away, or whether he intends to come back for her, Abilene spends her summer digging into the past. She becomes consumed by the story, related to her in small chunks by a neighbor, of two boys who lived in Manifest during World War I.
Jinx and Ned's story is a bit more action-packed than Abilene's, ranging from running cons to run-ins with the local KKK to running off to war. However, both Jinx in his day and Abilene in hers make friends, and take actions that help save the town of Manifest.
Moon Over Manifest has it all. A strong sense of place, three-dimensional characters, suspense, humor, and multi-layered prose. Manifest (based on a real town in Kansas) is a mining town composed mostly of new immigrants. This backdrop leaves plenty of room for colorful characters and tense interactions. Abilene and Jinx are both strong characters (though the reader gets to know Abilene a bit more thoroughly). Shady, a bootlegger who takes in these two children, 18 years apart, is complex and compelling, as is Miss Sadie, a local fortuneteller. The bad guys are perhaps a tad one-dimensional, but the good guys are all endearingly flawed, and charmingly quirky.
The extensive historical detail that Vanderpool weaves in is organic to the story. Nothing feels tacked on. The vision of life in the trenches of World War I (conveyed via letters from Ned) is bleak, but not too intense for middle grade readers. The Spanish Flu, the plight of miners owned by the company store, the attitude of the KKK towards immigrants, and the Great Depression are all part of the story, woven in as far more than a backdrop.
But really, I think what I like best about Moon Over Manifest is Abilene's voice. Here are a few examples:
"His words drew pictures of brightly painted storefronts and bustling townsfolk. Hearing Gideon tell about it was like sucking on butterscotch. Smooth and sweet." (Page 1)
"My confidence was seeping out of me like water through a bucket full of holes. I wished Lettie and Ruthanne could go with me, but they had eggs to sell. Besides, it was my debt to work off." (Page 84)
"We tiptoed down the hall to the second classroom on the right. The heavy wooden door opened easily and we stepped in. There is an eerie, expectant feeling to a schoolroom in the summer. The normal classroom items were there: desks, chalkboards, a set of encyclopedias. The American flag with accompanying pictures of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. But without students occupying those desks and their homework tacked on the wall, that empty summer classroom seemed laden with the memory of past students and past learning that took place within those walls. I strained to listen, as if I might hear the whisperings and stirrings of the past." (Page 232)
The other voices in Moon Over Manifest are strong, too. Ned's letters, Jinx's flashbacks (as related by Miss Sadie, but told from Jinx's viewpoint), and a number of interspersed newspaper columns all add variety and interest.
Moon Over Manifest is beautifully written, and is full of humor, heart, and history. I can see why the Newbery committee chose it, and I'm glad that I took the time to read it. Highly recommended for middle grade readers (boys or girls), or anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: October 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.