Moon Over Manifest

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 2011

Moon Over Manifest

by Clare Vanderpool

Age: 10+

Interests: history, US history, depression, WWI, poverty, small town life, mystery, crime

Yearling/Random House: 2010

346 pages

Also by this author: Navigating Early

It’s 1936 and Abilene is happily riding the rails with her father Gideon, when he abruptly ships her off to live with friends in the town of Manifest, Arkansas. The reason he gives is that he needs to travel for a new job, but she is plagued with doubt. Has he abandoned her for good, or will he come back for her?

Manifest is full of eccentric characters, like the Substitute Pastor and bootlegger Shady Howard, who Abilene is staying with. The young girl discovers a box of letters and odd knick-knacks in his house that might have belonged to her father when he came to Manifest as a young boy. She also befriends a Hungarian fortune-teller, who tells her – over many weeks – the long story of an orphan boy named Jinx who came to Manifest long ago, which Abilene suspects is the story of her own father.

Along the way she meets many town residents, including Sister Redempta, the schoolteacher and midwife, Hattie Mae, editor of the town newspaper, and two lively cousins who become her friends and co-conspirators. Abilene and her new friends are determined to discover the identity of ‘the Rattler’, a spy that is referred to in the letters in the box she found.

This novel is packed full of characters and events, both in the 1936 narrative about Abilene, and in the flashback narrative involving two boys Jinx and Ned, and their exploits just before World War I. Along the way there is a miner’s strike, a community bootleg operation, a dramatic court scene, and lots of small-town gossip and intrigue.

While the mysteries (and there are several) are interesting and the Jinx-Ned storyline is entertaining, by the end I had started to lose track of all the threads of the story. The reasoning behind stringing out the revelations is a little shaky – I didn’t feel there was really a reason for the townsfolk to keep Abilene in suspense for so long. If they are all so friendly and care for her so much, why doesn’t someone just sit her down, reassure her about her father’s good intentions, and tell her his connection with the town right away? There seems to be no real good reason why she must endure hours and days and weeks of storytelling from Miss Sadie to find out what she wants to know. I did feel at times that the plethora of detail results in the novel going off in all directions at once. The resulting busy-ness tends to dilute what’s most important –  Abilene’s search for her father’s past.

Flawed logic aside, there’s a lot of plot doled out in this novel: crimes, shady histories, corrupt police, bootleggers, klansmen, evil industrialists, downtrodden immigrants, class conflict, snooty widows, brave soldiers, troublesome teens, rambunctious children and con men. Jinx emerges as a boy with a criminal past who pulls the town together in a dubious undertaking, and who – Abilene finally discovers – left Manifest and changed his name to Gideon. Once she hears his full story she understands why he feels inadequate to be a proper parent, and she works to bring him back to Manifest to stay.

Set against the events of the era, this book touches on labour relations at the mine, intolerance and hatred of immigrants, the patriotic fervor at the start of the Great War, the devastating influenza that swept the country at the end of the war, prohibition and bootlegging, and finally the hard times of the Great Depression, and the dangerous lives of tramps and grifters.

NB. The publisher recommends this book as suitable for ages 9-12, but the plot is so convoluted and baroque that it might discourage the more reluctant readers in this range.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.