So, on Monday Moon Over Manifest was something of a surprise winner of the Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year” (2010). And I just happened to have a copy of the winning book in my library basket, a leftover from the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction panel that I hadn’t been able to find before the deadline in late December for our shortlist to be finalized. I read the book yesterday.
I can now say that if the publisher (Delacorte) had seen fit to send a review copy, I might very well have pushed to put Moon Over Manifest on our shortlist. Of course, that’s easy to say now, hindsight and all. But I haven’t been too excited about or fond of some of the recent Newbery Award books. And I said so. Last year’s book, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead was great, but of course, I’m a Madeleine L’Engle fan, so I would like anything that paid tribute to A Wrinkle in Time. I tried to read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book three times year before last and never got past the first few chapters. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! seemed sort of, dare I say it, boring, and The Higher Power of Lucky was just O.K.
Moon Over Manifest is the story of a girl, twelve year old Abilene Tucker, whose father, Gideon, is a hobo. Abilene and her dad have been riding the rails together for as long as she can remember, but now (summer, 1936) Gideon has sent Abilene to live with an old friend of his in Manifest, Kansas while Gideon takes a job on the railroad back in Iowa. Abilene is not happy about being separated from her loving and beloved father, and she is determined that Gideon will come get her by the end of the summer. In the meantime, Abilene wants to find some information about the time Gideon spent in Manifest during World War I, before Abilene was born. What she gets is a nun, Sister Redempta, who teaches at the Sacred Heart of the Holy Redeemer Elementary School and gives her a summer assignment on the last day of school. Abilene also meets:
Shady Howard, the bootlegger who is also the interim pastor of the First Baptist Church
Miss Sadie, fortune teller, spirit medium, conjurer, and story-teller extraordinaire,
Hattie Mae Harper Macke, newspaper columnist and amateur historian of Manifest,
and two new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, who join Abilene in searching for The Rattler, a spy who may or may not be selling secrets from Manifest to the enemy.
The story alternates between 1936 and Abilene and her friends and 1917-18 when the Manifest townspeople of 1936 were just growing up and when Abilene’s father should have been making his mark on Manifest’s history. Will Abilene find mention of her father in any of the stories Miss Sadie tells? How does Miss Sadie know so much about all of the secrets and events that make up the story of Manifest, Kansas? Does Shady have stories to tell about Abilene’s father? Who is or was The Rattler, and is he still in Manifest, spying on people and keeping secrets? Will Gideon come back to get Abilene, or has he deserted her for good?
Let’s start with the cover. Abilene is walking on the railroad track, thinking about her father and about the stories Miss Sadie tells. Do kids walk on the railroad tracks anymore? I lived about four blocks from the railroad tracks when I was growing up, and I certainly did. I walked along the tracks and looked for lost coins and thought about stuff. I love the cover of this book. So nostalgic.
Then there’s the story. Abilene is an engaging character, independent, feisty, and determined. But she’s also respectful and grateful for the people in Manifest who help her and feed her and take care of her. I like respectful and thankful, since it seems to be in short supply sometimes in book characters and in real kids. Abilene’s story feels real and has a flavor of the summertime adventures of the Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Abilene and her two buddies roam all over Manifest all summer long, and they make up stories and hunt for The Rattler with impunity and without much adult interference. The adults are available, but not over-involved. I think my kids could use some of that kind of independence and free-range experience.
As Abilene grows up over the course of the summer, she also learns more about her father and about his history, his character, and his flaws. Twelve is about the right time for a daughter to begin to see her father as a real person with a past and with hurts that need to be healed. In Moon Over Manifest, Gideon is a good father who “deserts” his daughter for good reasons, unlike the mother in another lauded book of 2010, One Crazy Summer. In facter the two books could be compared in several ways—feisty young heroine, absent parent, a summer of growth and discovery, people who are not who they seem to be–and I think Moon Over Manifest would come out the winner in a head-to-head competition between the two books.
So, Moon Over Manifest is a fine novel; it will probably appeal most to mature readers with good to excellent reading skills. The chronological jumps are well marked and easy to follow, but some of the psychological insights into family history and relationships are going to go over the head of young readers no matter how well they can follow the plot. Still, Ms. Vanderpool’s book is a good addition to the historical fiction of the Great Depression and a worthy Newbery Medalist.