November 07, 2016

Middle Grade Monday: MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool

Synopsis: Yes, look, I'm participating in a Thing, and that thing is Middle Grade Monday! When am I ever organized enough to do that? Today, evidently. Anyway, I recently read Newbery Award winner Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, who was one of the keynote speakers at this year's KidLitCon in Wichita. While I don't read as much MG as I do YA, this one shares many similarities with my favorite MG books from over the years: a main character who isn't sure who she is or where she fits in, thrown into a new situation like a fish out of water, and forced to rely on her natural pluckiness, wit, and kindheartedness; a young girl exploring her family's past and a town's secrets, and finding out she has a family-of-the-heart just as true blue as her own father.

When twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker gets to Manifest, where her father has sent her to live for the summer with his old friend Shady Howard, it's 1936, and a lot has changed in the town of her father's boyhood. It doesn’t match any of the stories of mischief and colorful townspeople from her father's stories, or the gossip from the newspaper columns she's been scouring from the 1917 edition of the Manifest Herald. The town Abilene shows up in is dusty, old, and dying. But it's got a history, and she's determined to root it out and discover what her father's connection is to this place.

Told in alternating storylines, past (1917) and present (1936), the reader learns along with Abilene the story of two young men, Jinx and Ned, who take very different paths in life, and a town made up of a fascinating array of immigrants, all of whom arrived in Manifest hoping for new lives and honest work at the nearby mine. By the time Abilene arrives in 1936, the mining operation is dead—but the stories aren't. They're there for her to find, and she goes on finding them, even when a mysterious note warns her to leave the town's secrets alone. In the process, she finds new friends, too—and a new adoptive family that has a heart and soul the size of a town.

Observations: This book is set up in a way that is so much fun and so clever. There's the story-within-a-story, which naturally unfolds as Abilene gets to know the mysterious diviner Miss Sadie, a slightly unnerving recluse who lives alone behind a gate marked Perdition. And then there are the bits of ephemera that illuminate the world of Manifest's past—newspaper columns from Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary and fictitious ads for hilarious old-timey-sounding products like "Velma T.'s Vitamin Revitalizer." In this way, the past is brought to life using bits and pieces that are cleverly put together to tell a story—to tell parallel stories, really.

I loved the intriguing cast of characters in this one, too. Immigrants from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Scotland, Italy, and more are thrown together in a small Kansas mining town, and it's such a wonderful microcosm of the history of early-20th-century America. Well, not always wonderful—because the KKK is there, too. This story doesn't pull many punches about the darker side of our history, and something that isn't always written about is the many immigrant groups who were viewed as somehow lesser. In this instance, in 1917, the Germans are the prime scapegoats, under suspicion as wartime spies. And it turns out there are a LOT of people in Manifest who are hiding things…

But, of course, one big takeaway from this story is that few people are what they seem to be on the outside, and we all have hidden histories to tell. Abilene finds her father's history, and in the end, realizes that it's hers, too—and, much like the town, it isn't dead but is very much alive, and just needs a bit of spark…

Conclusion: The word "heartwarming" is overused but suffice it to say that by the time I finished this book, I wanted to hug it.

I purchased my copy of this book from the fantabulous Watermark Books in Wichita, home of the Kidlitosphere's own Book Nut. You can find MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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