There's no magic in Manifest, Kansas. No vampires or zombies, No gossip girls, no bling and no texting. But there are secrets, bootlegging, con artists and a mystical gypsy. There are good friends, kind people, clever schemes, lessons learned and not one but two engrossing stories.
Wichitan Clare Vanderpool's debut novel for middle readers (ages 9 to 12) sweeps readers into another place and time: Manifest in the middle of the Great Depression. Young Abilene Tucker has been sent to Manifest by her father while he works a railroad job; she's expected by an old friend of his, pastor Shady Howard. Shady, a onetime bootlegger who's not much of a pastor and appears to live up to his name, takes Abilene in and provides a home as best he can. In her attic room, Abilene finds a box of mementos and letters that belonged to a person named Jinx in 1918.
Abilene also makes a couple of friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, and together they go through the letters and snoop around town and dig through old newspapers trying to find out who the mysterious "Rattler" mentioned in the letters was. Was it someone in town spying for the Germans during the war? Was it a ghost? Was it just a figment of someone's imagination?
At the same time, Abilene makes the acquaintance of Miss Sadie, a Hungarian "diviner" who mixes up potions and interprets the past for the people of Manifest. After breaking a pot, Abilene must work off the debt, and as she works, Sadie tells her stories of the people in town and long-ago events, and the escapades of Jinx and his best friend, Ned. Abilene, convinced that Jinx is really her father, Gideon, keeps returning to hear more.
Abilene's story and Sadie's stories are interspersed with newspaper accounts, letters and little ads, lending more detail and historical realism.
Vanderpool does a marvelous job of creating a sense of place in Manifest: It's a mining town, populated by immigrants from all over Europe, not unlike several real towns in southeast Kansas. She doesn't gloss over tensions between immigrant groups, between laborers and the mine owner, even the presence of the Klan but presents them in such a way that younger readers will understand.
She captures the sense of community that can rally small towns, without ignoring the divisions, petty rivalries and machinations of the people in the town.
As Abilene tries to find out more about her father, while missing him terribly, she begins to realize that maybe he isn't coming back for her at the end of the summer. And that maybe Manifest could be a home for her, a place to start her own story.
"It also bothered me that I didn't have a story. 'Telling a story ain't hard,' Lettie had said. 'All you need is a beginning, middle and end.' But that was the problem. I was all middle. I'd always been between the last place and the next."
Vanderpool has created a memorable character in Abilene: spunky and clever, yet vulnerable; still a girl, but starting to learn more about the adult world; wanting independence, but still needing someone to look after her. Abilene takes us back to another age, less technologically advanced, but no less simple.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 368 pages, $16.99)