When Clare Vanderpool’s debut novel, Moon Over Manifest, won this year’s Newbery medal, I don’t think anyone was expecting it, least of all me. It was the little book that came out of left field and quietly took the big prize. Thankfully I had purchased a copy for my library last fall, so I was able to come in the very next day, pull it off the shelf and give it a read and find out just what the Newbery committee had seen in this Depression-era tale.
There are two stories being told in Moon Over Manifest. The main story is of Abilene Tucker, a young girl being sent to live in Manifest, Kansas by her roving father, Gideon. The old and faded sign outside Manifest reads, “a town with a past”, and Abilene arrives in May 1936, a time when it was hard for anyone to imagine a brighter future. Abilene is watched over in Manifest by a Paster Howard, called Shady by everyone who knows him. Shady knows Abilene’s father, but is reticent to give many details of Gideon’s life. The other story comes into play when Abilene accidentally breaks a pot belonging to Miss Sadie, a local diviner and medium. Abilene must work for Miss Sadie to make up for her destruction, and while she works, Miss Sadie talks and tells the story of a boy called Jinx, his friend Ned and their exploits in Manifest in 1917. Jinx is another child used to being on the move in life who finds himself in the charge of Shady, at this time a bootlegger who makes homemade whiskey. The two stories run side by side throughout the summer. Abilene finds letters from Ned in her bedroom as well as a clue about a potential spy in the area which leads her and her new friends on a townwide spyhunt. For Ned and Jinx, their times are spent getting into trouble, getting out again, and helping a town of mostly immigrants find common ground.
I wasn’t immediately taken with Vanderpool’s storytelling. To be honest, the first one hundred pages read more like three hundred. The story wasn’t speaking to me and I was struggling to stay engaged. The landscape of the book felt far too crowded, with too much going on. I was far more interested in Ned and Jinx’s story, and found Abilene to be something of a stock character; I was often disappointed when I had to return to her. There were definite high points (mostly Jinx’s) and moments of dry and unexpected humor. And then there was the ending, which was both predictable and neat, bordering on trite. I much preferred the ending of another tale of the Great Depression, Jennifer Holm’s Turtle in Paradise. Turtle’s ending wasn’t perfect, because her life wasn’t perfect at that moment. No one’s was.
Awards are funny things sometimes. It can be an easy thing to be your own personal favorites, but awards are generally the consesus vote of a group, and through votes like these, often the safe choices are made. Look at this year’s Oscar race. The Social Network is a solid, relevant film that speaks to modern life coming from a well-respected and unrewarded director (at least as far as Oscars are concerned). Because it’s something most can agree upon, it’s an easy choice. Moon Over Manifest feels like a easy choice to me, a decent book that might not be the top of anyone’s list, but is safe enough to be liked by everyone and offending no one. I could be completely wrong, of course, Every single member of the Newbery committee could have walked into the room with this book as their far and away favorite. I just don’t see it happening that way.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
2010, Delecorte Books
2010, Delecorte Books