March 20, 2011


by Clare Vanderpool
351 pages, Delacorte Press

Review by S.F. Winser

This is a Newberry winner about small-town America. It's actually more like two historical novels, a generation apart.

In 1935, Abilene Tucker has been sent to Manifest, Kansas because her father is worried about her following him on his nomadic railway job. Abilene has heard stories about Manifest for years. And when she gets there, she and some new friends decide to hunt a spy mentioned in some old letters Abilene finds. But her real task is to try and track down the threads of her father's childhood in this town that has taken on almost mythic proportions in her mind.

Because she can't find any. It's been a big part of his life and her upbringing, but now that Abilene has finally arrived, there's no trace of her father ever having been there.

And that's not even the real story. The REAL story is the story told to Abilene as she tries to understand how this could be. The story of Manifest as it was in 1917. Abilene, in many ways, is just a bridging device. Her own little quests and happenings are endearing enough, and are a great way to perform narrative reveals, but it's the story of the oppressive mine-owner, and Prohibition and WWI and friendship and Depression-era style con-jobs in a small town that really drive the book.

The interweaving of war letters, reminiscence, newspaper articles and dialogue is brilliantly handled. The characters are well-drawn. Abilene is wonderful in 1937. Equally wonderful are Jinx and Ned, the core of the story from 1917. As is Shady, who is one of the characters to appear in both narrative lines. And many others are nicely drawn and, more importantly, real.

I didn't even notice that this had won the Newberry for children's literature when I decided to read it. When I did, I was annoyed. There was too much overtly literary styling. Vanderpool often gets well into telling the story, seems to notice that she hasn't done anything 'Literary' for a while and then throws in a bit of 'Literary Doings' before getting back to the storytelling. And these are often jarring. It's been a while since I've hated a first line so very much, for example. 'The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby' is actually... okay. A little self-aware, but forgivably so. But then, besides closing her eyes, Abilene remains alert and agile-minded for the rest of the chapter. There's nothing lullaby about anything here. If anything, she's closing her eyes to become more focussed upon her thoughts, which are edged with worry. It's literary styling for the sake of looking literary. It really irked me. There are further examples. The overly-symbolic timing of the lancing of a wound is another clunker.

But I'd promised a colleague that I'd read this one fast, so I didn't blow it off then and there. And Vanderpool picked me up and carried me along into this intricate little story, where if the main revelation about Abilene's father is predictable, everything else is far from so. The twist relating to the old gypsy woman is so left-field that I was genuinely gob-smacked for a few moments. In a good way. This deserved the Newberry, despite my grumpiness with Vanderpool's sometimes fumbling stylings. Moon Over Manifest is an excellent little book that will resonate with adults as much as with children.

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