Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest, the winner of the 2011 Newbery Award, is a story about stories. When Gideon Tucker sends his twelve-year-old daughter Abilene to live in Manifest, Kansas with Pastor Shady, he tells her that the separation will only last a summer, while he is working for the railroad. Abilene feels lonely and abandoned, though, and as she tries to find her footing in the town that Gideon once called home, she realizes that she barely knows anything about her father’s past. Abilene begins to learn dozens of little stories and secrets as she meets the residents of Manifest, but not one of them seems to reveal anything about her father. His is a story that remains a mystery.
When she discovers a box of keepsakes and letters hidden under the floorboards in Pastor Shady’s home, she begins to imagine that these mementos belonged to her father. Because of her budding relationship with Miss Sadie, the local fortune-teller, she learns more and more about Jinx, the boy who saved and treasured the contents of the hidden cigar box. She begins to imagine that this young drifter is her father and gets caught up in the story of his adventures in Manifest. The history and residents of the town come alive in her mind; she keeps the silver dollar, the fishing lure and the other items as her own treasured talismans to mark her connections to Jinx and the community. She desperately wants to believe that learning the story of Manifest’s citizens will somehow bring her father back into her life.
As Abilene becomes more and more invested in Jinx’s story, the things that she learns about the town change the way that she understands the world around her. It isn’t until the end of Miss Sadie’s tale, though, that she truly understands the reasons that her father has sent her away.
When I first read the description of Moon Over Manifest, it was Abilene’s discovery of “a box filled with intriguing keepsakes” and her “search to learn the identity of [Jinx and his friend Ned]” that piqued my interest. The mysterious cigar box full of items shows up early in the story, and Abilene soon embarks on a series of escapades with her new friends, spying on townsfolk in order to unearth the secrets of her treasure box. But even though her adventures were endearing, it still took me a while to become truly engrossed in the novel. I found the first part of the novel cute but not compelling.
My inability to fully engage with the novel had to do with the switch back and forth between Abilene’s narration and the story of Jinx, as told by Miss Sadie. Vanderpool excels when writing in the voice of the twelve-year-old Miss Tucker; there is charm and humor in her commentary. At some moments, Abilene sounds a bit too old for her age, but her intelligent tone seems to be the result of a childhood spent riding the rails with her father and learning to survive during the Great Depression, so her mature voice didn’t bother me. She is quite an engaging character – I could almost hear her talking to me out loud as I read. In comparison, Miss Sadie’s story-telling tone is fairly flat, so unfortunately I was not as engrossed by the flashbacks about Jinx as I was with the present-day storyline at first.
As the novel went on, though, Jinx’s story became more complex and I was glad that I had continued to read. Although a newcomer to the town, young con-artist Jinx becomes involved in the town’s efforts to resist the greedy mine owner Arthur Devlin, so he is central to the story of the town’s survival. Moreover, his friendship with a local boy named Ned becomes more and more important to Abilene’s understand of her own relationship with her father. The way that Vanderpool weaves together the many different narratives of Abilene, Jinx and the residents of Manifest keeps the reader unsure of whether or not Jinx and Gideon are one in the same, heightening Abilene’s need to find a comforting story that will connect her to her father. The way that she engages with the past is both heartwarming and a little heartbreaking; she says, “I knew these people. Jinx and Ned and Velma T., Shady and Hattie Mae. Even Mrs. Larkin. They’d become part of me. And I loved them.” Abilene’s search for home and family in the present is dependent on the past, on an echo of what now exists. In the end, though, talking about the past proves to be therapeutic for many of the residents of Manifest and Abilene’s presence in the town helps to heal many old wounds. The complexity of Vanderpool’s novel might be slow to reveal itself, but Moon Over Manifest ends on a very satisfying note after divulging some unexpected connections between the residents of the town.