Sometimes when I look at a man, I see the boy in him, but it’s impossible to know all the influences of his youth – unless he tells you his story. In Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest, Gideon sends his twelve-year-old daughter Abilene, back to his hometown town of Manifest to live with an old friend. In this Depression Kansas town, Abilene discovers her father’s history. She meets his old caretakers and the children of his old friends, as she settles into a life different from the homeless adventures she’s had with her father, an itinerant worker.
The chapters alternate between 1916 when the town’s immigrants worked in the coal mine under a rich bigot, and 1936, the town’s present day with Abilene. A series of characters reveal the mystery of both the town and her father: Sadie the Diviner, who manipulates Abilene into digging a garden while listening to her stories; Shady, the kind bootlegger; Ned, who sends letters from the war; Jinx, the smart con man with a heart; and assorted town folk who are trying to forget the past.
Abilene finds an old cigar box filled with symbolic treasures and old letters, a vehicle for connecting to the past. Hattie Mae’s News Auxiliary, the town newsletter, still active since 1918, becomes another. Mirroring a Nancy Drew detective story, Vanderpool has Abilene looking for clues to who her father really is, why he left her in the care of these people, what changed the town years before, and her father’s role in it.
The dialogue convincingly connects the characters to the setting, and description of the hardships of the times adds authentic historic information. But they also slow the story down. I had a hard time getting interested at first; Moon Over Manifest does not have the same excitement as other Newbery winners – e.g., When You Reach Me (last year’s winner), The Hunger Games. It takes awhile for this story to warm up, and I wondered if the young adult audience the book targets would stay with it long enough to see its value. Like the frontier classic, Sara, Plain and Tall, the story “takes some getting used to.”
Vanderpool satisfyingly ends the story by revealing the true relationship of all the characters, resulting in a family for Abilene and a new-found connection with her father – a happy ending for all. Although I was glad to have read Vanderpool’s historical fiction based on her own grandparents, the reading felt a little like one of Sister Redempta’s summer reading assignments – until the end, when I had to pull out the tissues – a real tear-jerker.