Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

by Clare Vanderpool

Before I start off my review, let's have a brief rundown of the past 20 years of Newbery winners, shall we:

2010 - When You Reach Me -semi-Historical (set in the 1970s), fantasy/scifi elements

2009 - The Graveyard Book - straight up awesome fantasy

2008 - Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village - Historical (middle ages)

2007 - Higher Power of Lucky - Contemporary, Small Town

2006 - Criss Cross - semi-Historical (set in 1970s)

2005 - Kira-Kira - Historical (1950s), Small Town, South

2004 - Tale of Despereaux - Fantasy, semi-Historical (vaguely medieval setting), Animals

2003 - Crispin: Cross of Lead - Historical (set in middle ages)

2002 - A Single Shard - Historical (set in ancient Korea)

2001 - A Year Down Yonder - Historical (Depression), Small Town, South

2000 - Bud, Not Buddy - Historical (Depression), Small Town, South

1999 - Holes - Contemporary, Fantasy, Adventure

1998 - Out of the Dust - Historical (Depression), Small Town

1997 - View from Saturday - Contemporary

1996 - Midwife's Apprentice - Historical (Middle Ages)

1995 - Walk Two Moons - Contemporary

1994 - The Giver - Straight-up awesome scifi

1993 - Missing May - Contemporary

1992 - Shiloh - Small Town, South, Animals

1991 - Maniac Magee - Contemporary

1990 - Number the Stars - Historical (Holocaust)

As you can see, about half the winners are historical fiction. 6 are set in small towns. 3 are specifically Depression-era stories set in small towns.

Before I read Moon Over Manifest, the 2011 Newbery award winner, I was predisposed somewhat not to like it. After all, it was yet another work of historical fiction set in a small town during the Depression. Once again, I thought, the Newbery committee has picked a book that would be appreciated more by teachers and librarians than it would by actual kids. Seriously, the only Newbery award winners I have EVER recommended to my patrons who didn't have an assignment to do are Holes, The Tale of Despereaux, The Giver, The Graveyard Book, Shiloh (because they like animal books), and Crispin: Cross of Lead (which actually has a lot of action). I really loved When You Reach Me, but it is definitely not the sort of book that most of our kids would read given that its a bit too heady (think Jonathan Safran Foer mixed with Jonathan Lethem). And I liked Moon Over Manifest, I really did. But once again, I don't know exactly how accessible a book it is.

Moon Over Manifest tells the story of Abilene Tucker, a spunky young girl who has spent most of her life riding the rails with her father, traveling town to town picking up work where they can. But for some reason, Abilene's father has decided not to take her on his next trip, and instead tells her to go to the small town of Manifest, Kansas for the summer to live with an old bootlegger/pastor named Shady. What she sees at first is a dried up town, but what she uncovers is a place full of secrets, a town that has lost something along the way. Over the course of the summer, through interactions with the townspeople, reading old newspaper articles, and hearing stories told to her by the town's resident diviner, Miss Sadie, Abilene comes to know the town as it is now in hard times and how it was back during the first World War. She especially comes to learn of the tale of two friends: a young drifter/ con artist named Jinx (2 guesses on who that turns out to be) and his friend Ned. It is a story of memory and loss, of willfully forgetting the past and regaining what was lost. There are moments of genuine humor and levity (Jinx manages to convince some Klansmen to use poison ivy as toilet paper) and excitement (what Jinx has been running from all along), but mostly it is a story about storytelling, about friendship, about memory. For that reason, I'm uncertain who to hand this book to. Fans of historical fiction or character studies will enjoy it, as it definitely recreates a specific time and place (actual two times: Manifest in the 1930s and Manifest in 1918). I think some mystery readers would like it too, if they prefer their mysteries long-simmering to spooky (the "Rattler" subplot isn't really enough to keep fans of genuine thriller mysteries entertained for long). The depth of emotion and subtlety of the book would probably be appreciated most by upper middle school readers, and the subplot of Velma T's "elixir" and bootlegging would probably be better understood by that age range as well. A 7th grade English teacher could probably do a lot with this book in terms of instruction, such as having students write their own news articles set during the first World War or write their own stories explaining a box of miscellaneous "treasures." But would I hand it to a random kid coming into the library looking for something to read? Probably not. If there was a kid who seemed perfectly matched to this book, I would probably give them To Kill A Mockingbird instead. But, if they liked To Kill a Mockingbird, I might just give them Moon over Manifest next.

Bottom line: it is a well-written, very expertly told story, but one that by and large will be enjoyed more by teachers than by children. In other words, it's a pretty typical Newbery winner.