2011 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
Moon Over Manifest
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of critical importance.)
Clare Vanderpool’s debut novel Moon Over Manifest is the winner of the ALA’s 2011 Newbery Award.1 Ms. Vanderpool says the book grew out of the concept of “true places” and her wondering what becomes such a place for “someone who has never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time.”2 This is a depression-era twist on an orphan train story that features colorful, sometimes shady characters in a complex plot progression with revolving storylines and a tapestry of themes well suited to thought-provoking conversations in homes and classrooms.
One summer in 1936, Gideon Tucker puts his daughter, twelve-year-old Abilene, on a train bound for Manifest, a place she’s never been to but that she knows well enough from her father’s stories of days gone by. He will work a railroad job that will keep him on the move, but Abilene knows that he will come back for her before school resumes in the fall. There are others in Manifest, however, who are not so certain he will return by September—or maybe ever.
Abilene’s first task in Manifest is to find Shady Howard, former saloon owner and bootlegger-turned-pastor; she is to live with this man who some years earlier had taken in Gideon. In her upstairs bedroom at Shady’s she finds a box of keepsakes under a floorboard, though who had put them there is a mystery. With her new friends Lettie and Ruthanne she begins a spy hunt for someone called “the Rattler” who was referred to in a letter from that box. The other mementos lead to other discoveries as the story unfolds, and Abilene sometimes learns more than she has bargained for.
The chronology of the storyline moves back and forth between 1936 and 1917, starting first with Abilene’s story followed by stories told by Miss Sadie, the town “fortune teller,” and then back again to 1936. (Curiously, the fortune teller’s stories are only of the past and never of the future.) Several of Hattie Mae’s 1918 newspaper columns are tucked in along the way, lending a few facts and a lot of flavor. While the fonts and formatting help the reader stay on track chronologically, the inverted storyline is complicated, especially if a reader is expecting the more traditional progression of forward-moving action followed by consequence. The publisher presents this as a book for ages 9–123, and while young readers may enjoy the story on its surface, the complexity of the presentation may minimize their depth of understanding and full comprehension of the many layers of this tale.
The colorful characters are both winsome and troublesome. Humans are flawed, and these characters are likewise flawed, yet authentic because of that. Some readers will be bothered by characters that are not always good, yet it is a trait of well-crafted literature to show flawed and growing characters. These fictional folks and this literary element will give parents and teachers a number of talking points: Were Shady and Jinx clever or duplicitous in the quarantine segment? Is Miss Sadie a fortune teller or a historian? Did Ned borrow or steal the Manchurian Fire Thrower? And stepping back a bit, do the characters behave in 1936 the same way that they did in 1917 or do the characters grow—not to perfection but to maturity?
In Abilene’s twelve years moving from one place to another, she has developed her own catalog of “universals”—stereotypes—that can clarify or cloud her thinking. Her universals (like ours) are not always accurate and often are not even close. Miss Sadie delivers a mouthful when she tells Abilene that “the person you encounter is often more than the person you see.”4
As the book draws to a close, Miss Sadie shares with Abilene that “the line between truth and myth is sometimes difficult to see.”5 The careful reader will recognize that this is one of the difficulties Abilene has been wrestling with all along as she listens to Miss Sadie’s stories about Ned and Jinx and learns about the town of Manifest—“a town with a rich past and a bright future.”6 And that’s another topic for discussion.
Authentic to the time, but troubling for today’s readers, are the scenes where KKK members threaten the town of Manifest on several occasions and scenes where moonshine—its use and abuse—are mentioned.
Parents and teachers may debate whether various characters and scenes in Moon Over Manifest are appropriate for independent reading. But those same adults may find this book an engaging story that could serve well as a novel to study together with all of its literary elements, themes, and pertinent talking points.
SPOILER ALERT: Before this review comes to its end, let’s take a look at the conclusion of the story. In a day where relativism robs many a book of a satisfying ending, you’ve just got to love a book that ends with a reunion like this:
[Abilene is speaking.] “I stepped up to him [her father] . . . and at last he knelt down and took me in his arms. He held his face next to mine, and when he looked straight into my eyes with tears in his, I knew. And he knew. We were home.”7
1 Vanderpool, Clare. Moon Over Manifest. (New York: Delacorte Press, 2010).
4 Vanderpool, 113.
5 Ibid., 304.
6 Ibid., 1.
7 Ibid., 339.