Monday, June 20, 2011

In the Middle Monday Review
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Monday, June 20, 2011

In the Middle Monday is where I review books geared towards the middle school audience.

The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby. I closed my eyes to the dusty countryside and imagined the sign I’d seen only in Gideon’s stories: Manifest—A Town with a rich past and a bright future.

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.

For anyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird and consider it a quintessential reading experience then Clare Vanderpool’s debut novel Moon Over Manifest will delight you with its compelling story and setting, powerful prose and endearing characters. I loved everything about this book from its double entendre title and adorable cover, to the way the narration unfolds Manifest’s historical past. All the elements work in tandem to bring together a tale that lives and breathes long after the last word is read.

One of the truly brilliant elements in Moon Over Manifest is how effectively Vanderpool weaves story with setting through the eyes of Abilene Tucker, one of the most unforgettable characters since Harper Lee’s Scout. The small town of Manifest, Kansas in 1936 is revealed primarily through first person narration. Vanderpool’s addition of newspaper articles, letters,  and Miss Sadie, a diviner who regales Abliene with stories about Manifest’s past, allows the reader to walk hand in hand with Abilene as she attempts to understand why her father sent her to Manifest. The historical aspects of WWI, immigration, coal mining and prohibition combine to add color and realism to this town. Conflicted, Abilene searches to find among Manifest’s past a connection to her father hoping to answer the question of whether his desertion is temporary. Moon Over Manifest plot holds the reader’s attention through the rich use of symbolism, history, and disarming characters.

Vanderpool’s impressively clever plot is greatly magnified by her spectacular array of memorable characters and beautiful yet simple prose. The reader is introduced to not only the current town’s folk but also those who lived and contributed to Manifest’s past and present. While certain characters certainly stand out more than others, they all enhance and enrich this tale of loss and redemption.  But the star is certainly Abilene. I ached for Abilene as she dealt with the possibility of never seeing her father again...

I remembered all these things about Gideon, but I couldn’t remember if he’d said the words or if I’d only imagined them. Those words I’m coming back for you. 

Memories were like sunshine. They warmed you up and left a pleasant glow, but you couldn’t hold them.

...And I loved how this 12 year-old girl looked at the world and used her observation of it to make sense of herself and those around her...

I thought I knew a thing or two about people. Even had my list of universals. But I wondered. Maybe the world wasn’t made of universals that could be summed up in neat little packages. Maybe there were just people. People who were tired and hurt and lonely and kind in their own way and their own time...If there was such a thing as universal---and I wasn’t ready to throw all of mine out the window---it’s that there is power in a story. And if someone pays you such a kindness as to make up a tale so you’ll enjoy a gingersnap you go along with that story and enjoy every last bite.

Abilene’s childlike wisdom and sharp observation makes her voice resonate and will continue to be heard for years to come.

While I have barely touched the surface of the magnitude of Vanderpool’s novel, there is no possible way to fully explain just how truly special Moon Over Manifest really is. This is a book that must be experienced first hand, and in my humble opinion is a true classic in the making. While categorized as a middle level read, the intricate fabric of the story will be enjoyed and appreciated by any adult who loves to read.
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