My only regret after finishing Moon Over Manifest is that I didn't read it while sitting on a gently swaying porch swing, sipping ice-cold lemonade, swatting away the occasional mosquito as a harmonica played and a steam engine sounded its passing in the distance. Reading this book is like stepping back in time, and as I came to the last lines, it was bittersweet to know that I was about to leave that world behind.
Moon Over Manifest is the story of tough and independent Abilene Tucker. At the beginning of the story, Abilene saunters into the seemingly dull Kansas town of Manifest. She is settling down (not by her own choice) for the first time in a childhood spent on the road. Well, on the rails, actually. During the Great Depression of the 1930's, many jobless men resorted to a life of hitching rides on the railroads, going from town to town in search of work. Abilene and her father, Gideon, were two such "hobos"--an unusual background for a girl of twelve, to say the least.
From the moment she arrives in Manifest, Abilene is counting down the days left in the summer. She can think of nothing but the day when Gideon, who has sent her there alone, will come to take her back out on the rails with him. But it doesn't take long for doubt to set in. Is Gideon coming back? Why has he sent her to this town? Abilene knows that he spent time here before she was born, but when she tries to learn more from the people she meets in Manifest, she gets nothing but cryptic answers and dead-ends. But whether Gideon is coming back for her is not the only mystery she has to deal with. Abilene seems to be a magnet for secrets, eerie events and strange coincidences. A threatening note leads Abilene to begin scraping at Manifest's sleepy surface and she soon discovers that underneath, Manifest is a town with a dramatic past.
A rail-riding, twelve-year-old girl makes for a very unique protagonist. Abilene's voice is strong and steady, but just when she starts to seem a little too grown-up, she reveals the fears and doubts that are underneath her big talk. Abilene is the perfect heroine for a mystery. She's a fearless investigator, a careful listener, and an unabashed snoop.
In addition to bringing us a likable and original heroine in Abilene, Clare Vanderpool does an excellent job of making her book impossible to put down. The story moves back and forth between Abilene's life (Manifest, 1936) and glimpses of the past (Manifest, 1917), through stories told by the medium Miss Sadie and through letters and trinkets found underneath the floorboards of Abilene's room. Vanderpool transitions into these flashbacks so enticingly that you can't help but read on. All this past week, my eyelids sagging, I would try my darnedest to find a good stopping point, but when I saw that the end of the chapter was leading into a new flashback, I just couldn't bring myself to close the book. I needed to know what new secrets would be revealed, so I kept reading on, no matter the time. (For a teacher, on a school-night, that's saying a lot!)
While Moon Over Manifest is an excellent mystery, this is really just a clever disguise. At its heart, this is a story about family and community and what it means to make a home. It's also a story about...well, stories. Everyone in Manifest has a story, and there is something sacred in their tellings. As Miss Sadie's stories of old Manifest become more and more frequent, Abilene realizes that "As much as I had a need to hear her story, she had a need to tell it. It was as if the story was the only balm that provided any comfort" (p. 154). As the summer creeps on, Abilene realizes what an honor it is to have been invited, not just into the stories of the people of Manifest, but into their lives. In this novel, Clare Vanderpool both celebrates and demonstrates the magic of a well-crafted story. Now, go pour yourself a glass of lemonade and get to reading it!