Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The sun sets on Moon Over Manifest

Book 57: Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool 

I had a lot of reasons to like this book. The winner of the 2011 Newberry Award, it was written by a Wichita woman and is set in the fictional town of Manifest, Kansas, a stand-in for the real southeastern Kansas town of Frontenac.

I had a lot of reasons to like it, yet I didn't.

There were three reasons I found it disappointing -- the main character, the town of Manifest and the all-to-clever plot.

Abilene Tucker has been sent to Manifest by her father.  It's the middle of the Depression and the pair have been wandering the country until an injury to Abilene causes her father to realize that hopping the rails isn't the life for a 12-year-old girl.

Abilene's voice doesn't feel authentic to me.  Granted, she's been on the road and, granted, it's not unusual  for the principal character in a novel such as this to be precocious, but I never once felt that the voice speaking to me on these pages belonged to a 12-year-old girl living through the Depression.

Much is made by the author that her maternal grandparents lived in Frotenanc -- the town she uses as a model for Manifest -- and she spent time there as a child.  Yet Manifest never feels like a real place.  The author tells us that it is a Kansas mining town, inhabited by immigrants, but that picture is never fully drawn.

Elements of the plot -- the final trickery the townspeople resort to in order to wrest their lives from the hands of the venal mine owner -- are too clever by half.  I'll accept many scenarios from fiction writers -- FBI agents turned bricklayers and cities that exist side by side in some dimensional quirk -- but this final ploy is too clever and complicated to seem even remotely probable.

Even the ending, which should be warm and sweet, feels sentimental and contrived.

Ultimately, Moon Over Manifest reads like a book that adults want children to like. It reads like a book that might have been written in the '50s or early '60s.  I can't imagine too many young readers today taking it to heart. Certainly, it pales compared to the fine Mockingbird, Smiley's The Georges and the Jewels or any of Carl Hiaasen's novels for young adults.

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