Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is this year’s Newbery Award winner. Although it was a surprise pick to most, after reading it I have to agree that it is worthy. In 1936, 12-year old Abilene Turner’s father sends her to stay with an old friend in Manifest, Kansas for the summer. When Abilene discovers a hidden box of letters and keepsakes, she starts to unravel a mystery that has surrounded the town since 1918. As she uncovers the past of the town, she also begins to understand her father, and even find her own place in Manifest. An interesting bit of historical fiction within a historical fiction novel as the Prohibition/WWI time period is featured as well as the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. There’s truly a wonderful cast of characters, too, but the story definitely takes precedence over character development.
I really enjoyed the way Vandepool pulls this story together. The present time (1936) is told by Abilene. She and two new friends, Ruthanne and Lettie, have decided they need to solve the mystery of the identity of the Rattler, a spy who was thought to live amongst the townspeople of Manifest in 1918. This mystery becomes the focus of their summer and they go about solving it as typical 12-year old girls, getting into and out of not very serious trouble. The past (1918) is revealed in two ways. The “Hattie Mae’s News Auxiliary” column from old editions of the local paper is classic small town reporting, giving you a few facts and a lot to read between the lines. More straightforward are the stories told by Miss Sadie, a diviner who has spent her many years in Manifest telling people’s fortunes, but more importantly listening to their stories and observing everything going on in the town. Miss Sadie ends up telling Abilene longs stories of past days in Manifest.
Abilene has spent most of her life riding the rails with her father, working odd jobs and getting by. Abilene is feeling a bit abandoned by her father, not understanding why he has sent her away. She is hoping that as she learns about the past of Manifest, she will also learn about her father and why this small town was so important to him.
This book definitely can appeal to different readers. Although the 1936 story features girls, the 1918 story line features boys. The historical fiction aspect is solid. Besides the four broad historical time periods mentioned above, immigration, orphan trains, labor, and the KKK all are important to the story. So the book could serve as a jumping off point for learning more about any of these subjects, or a nice way to tie together all these different things that kids have learned about. At its core, though, Moon Over Manifest is a coming of age story that young readers will be able to relate to.