Because I started writing this blog a year ago this week, I at first thought I’d do a “State of the Blog” post and thank all the readers and writers out there that have made “On a Clear Day I Can Read Forever” so worthwhile and fun, etc., etc. But then I got lost in a lupus fog, and when the mist cleared, I’d forgotten what I was going to write beyond that.
I did remember that my first post was about Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which had just won the prestigious Newbery Award for best children’s book, and its parallels with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which also won the Newbery in 1963. The time-travel tale was my favorite when I was a kid, just as it is of Miranda, the 12-year-old heroine of Stead’s story, which has its own mysterious elements. Middle-grade magical realism. Loved it.
This year’s winner of the Newbery, Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Mainfest, is as different as can be from When You Reach Me but equally engaging. In 1936 Kansas, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker hops off a train to spend the summer in her father’s small hometown while he works a railroad job in Iowa. Always before, Abilene has tagged along with her dad from town to town, job to job. She tries to be optimistic about again being the new girl among strangers and hopes to find out more about her dad’s boyhood.
But Manifest has changed over the years, from a thriving immigrant mining community to a dusty, rundown place. Abilene knows the country’s suffering from a Great Depression, but she thinks it’s more like a big rut, and Manifest has fallen hard. But then she finds a cigar box with some hidden letters and mementos that hint at intriguing secrets from World War I, including a possible spy, the Rattler.
Was the spy for real? Through old newspaper clippings by Miss Hattie, and stories told by the Hungarian medium, Miss Sadie, at her divining parlor, Abilene and two new friends find out about the town’s past and the adventures of pals Ned and Jinx. There’s bootleggers, the KKK, a flu epidemic. Where does Abilene’s dad fit in?
This is Vanderpool’s first novel, but you’d never know it. Drawing on family stories and research, she crafts a rousing historical novel with characters to care about. Love it.
I also love serendipity. I don’t know Vanderpool, but she lives in Wichita, where I lived for five years many moons ago, and I’ve even been through Frontenac — on which Manifest is based — on my way to a writing conference at Pittsburg State University. It’s in Crawford County, the southeast part of the state, and the green, hilly landscape looks more like Ireland than the plains west of Wichita.
Vanderpool also used to work at Wichita’s wonderful independent bookstore, Watermark Books, which was one of my favorite haunts. I went to my first big BEA convention– then known as ABA — with the staff from Watermark, driving to Dallas in a white convertible. I wouldn’t have become a book reviewer and a writer if not for Watermark and Wichita. Congratulations to Clare Vanderpool on her terrific first novel, and thanks to her for reminding me of my Kansas adventures.
Open Book: I bought an e-book copy of Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Random House Children’s Book). Wish it had been a hardcover from Watermark.