Monday, April 25, 2011

Searching for the True Places: Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Mari-Beth Slade, to our group.

I spent the past week visiting my in-laws in Myrtle Beach. Amid copious outlet shopping and chain restaurant overindulgence, I assumed there was no less intellectually inspired or engaging place on earth until my mother-in-law handed me Wednesday’s paper. In the centerfold was a children’s newspaper. What a fabulous way to get children engaged in reading, current events and culture! To celebrate National Library Week, “The Mini Page” interviewed this year’s Newbery Medal winner, Clare Vanderpool, author of Moon Over Manifest (Random House, 2010). I confess I’ve not given children’s literature much thought lately, but thinking back to the emphasis my mother placed on the luxurious gold sticker than adorns Newbery Medal winners, I couldn’t wait to get to a bookstore and pick it up. I read it for nostalgia; I read it for fun; I read it because there is always a didactic element to children’s literature and I wanted to learn something; I read it because I am sick of pronouncing culture with a capital C.

Moon Over Manifest is the story of a preteen girl and her search for her home and family history. Both seem to elude her at the beginning. Her dad has just been sent to Manifest, Kansas, to live with old friends and once again, Abilene must make new friends for herself. But that doesn’t prove to be a problem for the curious and outgoing Abilene, who quickly finds her life full of people who have firsthand knowledge 
of both her father and the town secrets. Abilene’s self-directed quest is to uncover the truth about both.

Author Clare Vanderpool
Abilene’s quest keeps taking her back to that famous Melville quotation: “It is not down on any map. The true places never are.” I have two confessions to make: 1. I’d be able to get more out of this reference if I’d been able to get through Moby Dick; 2. this was not the only thing in Moon Over Manifest that I had to look up. Thanks to the novel, I know now what ‘comeuppance’ and ‘commodious’ mean (a punishment or fate that someone deserves; roomy and comfortable). There were adult jokes, too. As a child, I remember reading things in books and not fully understanding them until I reread the passages years later. Since children’s books are written by adults, we get the strange distortion of seeing the world through the eyes of a child filtered through the lens of an adult. I nodded in agreement when Hattie Mae says “You know how men are. When they don’t feel good, the world comes to a standstill.” I chuckled with pity when, after a long epigraph on Mr. John’s headstone, I read the engraving on his wife’s, “Here lies Mary Foster – Wife of John.” An observant child protagonist produces a classic case of dramatic irony. They report things with crystal clear observation, yet minimal cognition about what the things they see mean.

Much of Moon Over Manifest is about the power of narrative. There are stories within stories, requests for stories and connections across stories. In Abilene’s search for home, she collects other people’s stories and tries to write her own. But she quickly learns that a story is a path to the truth, not the truth itself. One of the novel’s key characters is Miss Sadie medium, gypsy, diviner. Miss Sadie’s stories form a subplot to the action of the novel and the two worlds are tied together through the physical objects that Abilene finds from the past. This physical manifestation of the connection between past and present, narrative and reality, is a clever reminder that our lives can never be lived in a vacuum. But although we are affected by the accounts of others, our story is ultimately our own. As Abilene says of Miss Sadie, “her story is like thousands of others and yet her story is just that: her story.”

Vanderpool reading from Moon Over Manifest
On the other hand, when reading a children’s book one must expect plot, character development and literary devices to be somewhat formulaic. I could have done without the inelegant symbolism Vanderpool attempts to draw using the moon and moonlight.  Yet it is comforting to be surrounded with obvious symbols and stock characters. As a constant newcomer to town, Abilene recognizes stock characters and calls them “universals”: snotty rich girl, book worm, class clown. We’ve all been tempted to essentialise people that way. But midway through the novel, Abilene realizes that “maybe the world isn’t made of universals…maybe there were just people.”

In addition to the universal life lessons I learned along with Abilene, Moon Over Manifest is incredibly rich in American history. Wartime, depression, prohibition and immigration all make an appearance in the text. Vanderpool explores themes of heritage vs. immigrants vs. migrants in Abilene’s search for her true place in the world, her home. I’ve discovered a whole new definition of home: a good book. A good book is one that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of age, gender, background. Moon Over Manifest fits the bill. Th
ere is plenty to inspire young and experienced readers alike.

Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

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