Posted on August 12, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Here be spoilers.
Sometimes I think the term "historical novel" is used as loosely "paranormal novel." Let's be honest here... Setting your story sometime in the past doesn't make it historical any more than peopling it with vampires and werewolves makes it paranormal. Both are more about creating (or recreating) a credible world which doesn't exist – at least anymore. This may be harder for authors of historical literature. After all, it's incumbent on them to actually do some research beyond wikipedia before they start writing, so it's a genuine pleasure to find an author who's done her homework and has skillfully woven it into an engaging story for modern readers. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool would be just such a novel.
The book is set in the fictional town of Manifest, Kansas, in 1936. This is at the height of The Great Depression and during a time of prolonged drought which turned much of the American heartland into what was known colloquially as "The Dust Bowl." Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker arrives in town in a most unceremonious way – by jumping off a moving train. Train-jumping is not a typical skill for a young girl, but Abilene's spent most of her life riding the rails from one side of the country to the other. Her widowed father, Gideon, is like many men of this age – a professional wanderer who's always looking for enough money or charity to care for Abilene. After Abilene becomes sick with a serious infection, her father sends her to Manifest to live with "Shady," the Methodist minister-cum-bootlegger who once cared for him as a boy.
It's a difficult transition for Abilene. The life of a hobo has been exciting and a small town is comparatively dull. But adventure finds Abilene when she discovers an old cigar box containing a mysterious map, bundles of letters and a variety of odd relics hidden beneath the floorboards in Shady's house. Left there eighteen years earlier, box and its contents appear to have belonged to a teenage boy called Jinx who, like Abilene, jumped off a train and landed in Manifest where he eventually found friends, family and a home. The letters are from another teenager named Ned Gillen, a Manifest resident who was stationed on the muddy French battlefields of World War I. But the map and the other trinkets — which include a Russian nesting doll, a silver dollar and a fishing lure — hint at a hidden side to the tiny town of Manifest. Why did Ned and Jinx chart the entire town and take care to note certain residents? Why was Jinx searching for someone called "The Rattler?" Was "The Rattler" a German spy or a ghostly figure said to walk in the nearby forest at night?
With the help of her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, Abilene undertakes a summer-long investigation to discover the truth behind Manifest with the narrative leaping between both timeframes and often punctuated by related newspaper stories, Ned's letters home and even random advertisements. The multitude of voices effectively replicate two distinct eras and reveal a place which is more intricate than either Abilene or the reader first suspected. But how Gideon figures into the story – and why there's no mention of him anywhere in town – seems the biggest mystery of all.
Moon Over Manifest is a charming book which will probably appeal more to tweens due to the protagonist's age and themes including father-daughter relationships. Although the large number of characters and different time periods might cause some confusion, it's well ordered and I found it easy to follow for the most part. The biggest question for me was why so many of the characters we see in 1917 Manifest weren't around twenty years later – but that's just another mystery for Abilene to solve. This one's definitely worth a read!
The book won the 2011 Newbery Award for outstanding fiction.