Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Moon Over Manifest

It's difficult not to take some things personally, especially when it comes to missing the arrival a great book; so when Clare Vanderpool's MOON OVER MANIFEST won the 2011 Newbery Award, I somehow managed to think it was a personal failure to not have known about it. Worse, because I'd had my favorites already in place, I questioned the right of this book to pop up out of nowhere (or, at least, nowhere I was looking).

I decided to read it and report my findings, but ran into a snag: how could I review a book without measuring it by the highest standard of children's literature? I can't. It's impossible for me to look at it without picking apart the bones to see how it holds up against those that came before it.

What I can say, after finally having read it, is that Vanderpool deserves her day in the sun for overcoming some complicated storytelling hurdles to deliver a story with breadth and depth. Her tale of twelve-year Abilene—whose father sends her away from their itinerant life to spend the summer in Manifest, Kansas—shifts from the present (1939) to the past (1918) as Abilene digs for clues to mysteries surrounding this small town burdened by a secret past.

There's a lot of ground to cover without ever stepping outside the tiny footprint of Manifest, including: an alleged WWI spy known as the Rattler; the dirty dealings of the Klu Klux Klan; an oppressive mine owner who commands the town and all its immigrants; local boys off to war; a bootlegging preacher; influenza; Hungarian diviner; and, last but not least, letters and mementos left behind by a boy on the run...a boy Abilene thinks just might be her father. Whew.

Vanderpool unravels these many threads through multiple points of view that give the story its movement as well as its continuity between the two time periods: Abilene's first person narration; letters from a WWI soldier; old news excerpts; and third-person vignettes told by a "diviner" who recounts the past as though it is being relived. She deserves kudos for doing something I don't see done very often or very well: alternating between two time periods without upsetting the story or the reader (who may become attached to one era and resent the jarring).

It could be that since the two eras are fairly close in time, and some of the same characters exist in both, Vanderpool is able to maintain the same grip on the reader's attention (although I admit to having preferred the old story within the present story of 1939). Regardless, this is no small feat. She also does a superb job of grounding her story in vivid historical detail without making the experience feel at all teachery (which kids will love).

I do have a few bones to pick, however, not the least of which is the similarity of the two main narrative voices—those of Abilene and Sadie, the diviner—which are expressed with a little too much generic folksiness. Even Abilene wonders how she should be speaking (do people in Manifest say y'all?), and this tells me that Vanderpool wasn't quite sure herself. Since Sadie is Hungarian, it would have been nice to hear different diction or tone to that key element of the storytelling. It would also have smoothed the transition from present to past with a little less confusion as to who was telling each part of the story.

I'd also love to have seen Abilene be more active, make some mistakes that drive the story, and maybe change a little more by the end; in other words, to be more of a protagonist. Instead, the protagonist is someone in the past—the boy known only as Jinx. The problem comes from the fact that so much of the story is being retold. The nature of the town's secret is so unique and well worth telling, I wanted to see Abilene be more of a participant than an observer; or, if not that, then somehow significantly altered by the experience of uncovering the past. If it's there, I didn't pick up on it.

Although I wish there hadn't been so much left to the end for the truth to be revealed (made manifest), there's a lot of depth to this story's message. By the end, I felt satisfied by all the threads that came together and the lives that reached across two decades to create a place called home.  I can see why the Newbery committee selected it, and look forward to seeing more of Clare Vanderpool's work in the future.