Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery for 2011.  If it had not been recognized by that committee I probably wouldn't have read it because I'm actually pretty tired of Depression era novels.  This would have been too bad as the book is delightfully charming.
Synopsis (from Goodreads)
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”  Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

Manifest is a town that has seen better days.  Although not nearly as bad off as some other midwestern towns during the Depression, the  people have lost hope and have little binding them together.  Abilene enters this atmosphere longing to find her father's footprints on the town and inquires of the "diviner", Miss  Sadie.  What she gets is the story of a boy named Jinx and the town of Manifest in 1918.  I confess that it was this story that kept me reading the book.  Miss Sadie paints a vivid picture of the town and life in small town America in the early 20th century.  There were times I couldn't help thinking of The Music Man, particularly as Jinx is quite the conman.  The characters of the town in 1918 were real and vivid, if  a tad cliche'.  It was them I was invested in and made me care about what happened to those who were still around in the 1936 portion of the story.  Jinx and Ned both captured my imagination the same way they did Abilene's.

Abilene's story was not quite as enjoyable to me.  I never really connected with her character  or cared much about what happened to her.  She is very much your typical middle grade Depression era novel heroine.  Spunky, street smart, missing at least one parent, living in a small town, looking to connect with her dad.  This story has been told so many times I am heartily sick of it.*  I found myself skimming the parts where the story focused on her for mention of the people from the 1918 story and to move on more quickly  to the next part of that.  It was almost as if her entire function was to be the vehicle for the older story making her a cypher.  Nothing about her was all that memorable.

I enjoyed Vanderpool's descriptive voice and use of language.

Overall I found the book charming and fun.  There are not that many books for middle graders that depict the World War I era well.  The fact that this is one separates it from the sea of other MG Depression era novels it might otherwise have been lost in.

*Seriously, one of the Newbery Honor books for this year, Turtle in Paradise, tells this same story.  That was two in one year, and they aren't the first two.  I find it interesting that everyone on the committee this year seems to have the same genre bias.  Four of the five books are historical fiction.  Three of those four are 20th century American.  Two out of those three are Depression era novels that play off the same tropes.  I prefer it when the committee has more diverse taste. 

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