Alternating between two time periods, the Great Depression in 1936 and World War I in 1918, Clare Vanderpool tells the story of the small fictional town of Manifest in southeastern Kansas. Nominally, it’s the story of 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, who has spent her life traveling the rails with her father, Gideon. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, he up and sends her back to Manifest, a town he’s never talked about but has some connection with, to live with an old friend of his so he can go work in Nebraska. Feeling abandoned, Abilene decides what she needs to do is figure out what connection her dad has with this town, and why he’s sent her there. She ends up working for an old Hungarian fortune teller, and in return she tells Abilene stories, slowly unveiling the mystery of her father’s past. It’s by digging up the past that Abilene manages to pull a town that was slowly falling apart back together.
It’s an excellent portrait of a time and a place, making Kansas come alive rather than just being an Everyplace like it usually is in novels. (We need someplace noncommittal. How about Kansas?) I could tell that Vanderpool knows her stuff (well, she is a native Kansan; in the author’s note, she says that this was based on memories of her grandparents) and loves the place and its small, rural towns. Additionally, she’s created some winning characters: Abilene is a smart, feisty girl, one with a nose for adventure. But it’s not solely a “girl” book: the two main characters from 1918, Jinx and Ned, are just as engaging as the girls from 1936. Vanderpool manages to balance the two time periods, capturing the essence of each, and transitions seamlessly between them.
It’s a very captivating read, well worth the Newbery award it won.
Rated: Mild, for some mild swearing.