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moon over manifest

19 january 2011

Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, winner of the 2011 Newbery Medal, contains many of the stock elements that appeal to the Newbery jury. A scamp of a 12-year-old girl who loves reading and story-telling, a town full of quirky, halfway-coping adults, a mild mystery involving a feckless parent. What's original in Moon over Manifest, at least for children's fiction, is an elaborate, convoluted narrative structure full of nested stories within other nested stories, keeping several strands threading (or balls in the air?). It is part of the domestication of postmodernism in contemporary American culture that a nice historical novel about a 12-year-old must display narrative involutions that would leave Quentin Tarantino scratching his head.

Whatever interest we may initially have had in listening to 12-year-old Abilene Tucker figure out the vagaries of her drifter father's past is quickly diffused in simply trying to figure out who's talking and what set of character names refer to which people in which time frame (the novel's "present" is 1936; the nested events occur in 1917-18). We hear a lot these days about how kids have no attention span and can't carry out complicated critical thinking. But they are evidently quite well able to follow narratives of the approximate complexity of Absalom, Absalom! And no wonder, really: any 12-year-old who sat through Inception last summer without batting a brain cell is perfectly well-able to handle Moon over Manifest.

Though one wonders if a kid who's seen Inception would take any notice of the gentle, plucky goings-on of the grown-up-like kids and kid-like grown-ups of Manifest, Kansas. It's the paradox that highbrow children's literature has always faced. If you want to impress adults, construct something really literary (full of unlikely allusions to Moby-Dick, for instance). But you may lose child readers along the way.

Moon over Manifest certainly lost me along the way, and I like to think that I am as childish as 51-year-olds get. It isn't really so much the convolution of the structure as the surprisingly tensionless nature of the plot. I'd just got done reading Murder at the Savoy, where the events are drab and the structure straightforward – and where I was spellbound throughout. In Moon over Manifest, the events are perky, the structure intricate – and there's almost no drama.

Mostly this is because Abilene Tucker's situation, though we know it must be complicated somehow, is almost completely without energy. She gets to a brand-new town in the middle of the Depression, but of course she is plucky enough to make friends immediately and go about solving a 19-year-buried secret with fairly preternatural calm. All the adults she meets are gentle and wise, and they all value storytelling and reading. This is unobjectionable, but it's dull. Abilene isn't doing anything compelling in the story's present moment. She's trying to figure out some decades-old newspaper clippings, but apparently for the sake of curiosity itself.

Moon over Manifest is a tenderly written, anodyne book, but it doesn't pass the "so what" test.

Vanderpool, Clare. Moon over Manifest. New York: Random House, 2010.