This book was most deserving of the 2011 Newbery Medal. With dual narrative lines set in 1917-1918 and 1936, it's the story of a small town in Kansas called Manifest (modeled after the real town of Frontenac, where author Clare Vanderpool's grandparents grew up).
In her Newbery acceptance speech, Vanderpool stated, "I knew I wanted to write a story about place and about home from the perspective of a young girl who didn’t have a home." (*42) She later added,
"I came across a quote from Moby Dick. 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.' That’s when the wheels began turning. What is a true place? What would a true place be for someone who had never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time? What if it was a young girl during the Depression? A young girl named Abilene Tucker." (*44)
Twelve-year-old Abilene is sent in late May, 1936, to the town of Manifest by her drifter father Gideon, the closest place to a home in her father's stories. She's supposed to stay with a preacher named Shady. She arrives just in time for the last day of school, where she meets Ruthanne and Lettie, her playmates for the summer. She also meets Miss Sadie, a Hungarian woman who runs a "divining parlor."
Throughout the book, Miss Sadie tells Abilene a story about Manifest in 1917-1918, that mysteriously ties in items from a cigar box Abilene found hidden in Shady's home. The cigar box also contains letters from 1918 from Ned Gillen, a boy adopted by the local hardware store owner from the orphan train. Ned wrote the letters back to a boy named Jinx, after he helped Ned join the army (underage) to fight in World War I. Both Jinx and Ned (and Shady and a few other local people still alive in 1936, such as Hattie Mae and Sister Redempta) are in Miss Sadie's stories.
On the audiobook, actress Justine Eyre voices both Abilene in the first person in 1936, and the third-person 1917-1918 stories of Miss Sadie. Besides these alternating narratives, there are also excerpts from Ned's letters (voiced by Kirby Heyborne) and from "Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary," a column in the local newspaper in both 1917-1918 and in 1936 (read by Cassandra Campbell).
It all works together to create a novel with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, and a lot of heart and soul. And Vanderpool does an excellent job in creating her setting, not only in time and place, but also in the details of historical events and community life. I could feel the heat of the hot, dry summer, but I also felt the excitement of the bootlegging shenanigans, the immigrants' fear of the Klan and the mine owner, and the dread and sadness brought by Spanish influenza.
According to Vanderpool,
"Moon Over Manifest is about home and community, but in many ways it became a story about storytelling and the transformative power of story in our lives....Abilene would call this a universal—this need for story....And of all the places for her to end up in her drifting: Manifest, Kansas, the stopping point for immigrants and refugees from around the world. Displaced people just like her. People with stories of their own but whose stories become hers.... Through the people of Manifest, Abilene experiences the power in a story." (*44-45)So does the reader.
This book has an 800 Lexile score and measures at grade 5.3 reading level on Accelerated Reader, with an interest level of grades 4-8. The main characters are 12 (Abilene and her girlfriends) and 13 (Jinx), at the upper end of that grade range. With the mystery subplot and Jinx's cons, I think the story would appeal to both boys and girls. An author's note at the end addresses what's real and what's not in the book, and suggests further reading. There are plenty of opportunities to tie this book in with lessons on social studies, English language arts, and even science.
(*Vanderpool, Clare. "Newbery Acceptance Speech," The Horn Book Magazine, Volume 87, Issue 4, July-August 2011, pages 39-45.)
© Amanda Pape - 2011 - this review also appears on my blog, Bookin' It.
[This audiobook and a hardbound copy of the book were borrowed from and returned to the Dick Smith Library at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, where I also accessed Vanderpool's speech through the EBSCO Academic Search Complete database.]