Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Book Review Club - Moon over Manifest

Moon over Manifest
Clare Venderpool
middle grade

When a book wins an award as prestigious as the Newbery, I am burning with curiosity to read it. Can I learn something new? Any tricks of the trade hidden amongst the pages? Character development done in a new way? And what didn't work? Because we writers are all human and we make mistakes, but how does an award-winner make mistakes and make the piece still work?

With great anticipation, I downloaded Moon over Manifest to my new iPad. Yes, the virgin iPad read was a Newbery.

Basic plot summary - Abilene Tucker is sent to the town of Manifest by her father to live indefinitely while he works the railroad during the Great Depression. There, she learns the town's past, as well as her father's, which redeems Abilene and her father's relationship, heals old wounds, and rejuvenates a tired town.

There is a lot to like and to learn from in this book. Vanderpool does an amazing job of weaving multiple different storytelling patterns together to create her story. There is Abilene's narrative, the Hungarian woman's, and letters from Ned to Jinx, and the newspaper clippings. If a writer has to skip back and forth in time, this method of using multiple perspectives to fill in backstory is pretty creative and works well because it keeps the process of storytelling fresh.

There were a few things I wasn't so sure about. First, this is the first book I've read that I found myself editing as I went along. Now, this may be a side effect of an intensive MFA program, but I found this piece, while well-crafted, nevertheless hastily edited. There were extra words, poorly worded phrases, whole sentences that needed to be honed. I wondered if this is a sign of the increasingly crunched time of editors, or my better-trained internal ear, or both. Either way, the result was that these spots pulled me out of story and made me stumble in my reading.

Second, the character of Jinx gave me some trouble. He is in the 1918 story the Hungarian woman tells Abilene about the town of Manifest. We learn early on that Abilene hopes it is her father. As the reader, we are pretty certain it is her father. By taking away this element of surprise, the flashback story deflates. It is still interesting to read but then it just becomes a way for Abilene to learn more about her dad.

Finally, Abilene's internal growth seems fairly limited. True, she has to do physical labor for the Hungarian woman to learn the story of her father, but her processing of what she learns seems pretty minimal. I wanted her to have to struggle more, to grow internally. For me, she feels like much the same kid at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, just with more information about her dad. She didn't feel too damaged when she arrived, and she integrated herself well into the town while she was there. She didn't make any enemies. She made friends. She helped various characters. She realized what was her father's shortcoming and how to fix it, but that isn't the same as internal growth that the character herself needs.

All questions aside, if you are looking for a Katherine Paterson-like read, pick up Moon over Manifest. You won't cry (this is not something I consider a bad thing. I get weary of books that make me cry). You will enjoy the historical flashback and multi-layered storytelling technique that weave together a story about healing a father-daughter relationship.

And for more great reads, hop over to Barrie Summy's website. It's chalked full with winter wonders!


Sarah Laurence said...

I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book so I was eager to get your discerning appraisal. I love how you analyze a book for both strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps some of the problems came from this being a first book? Still, one would hope that editing would smooth that out, but editors have so little time to actually edit these days. If the MFA is helping you to refine your excellent reviewing skills, it was well worth the time and the money.

Stacy said...

Oh, I always edit as I read. I'm not sure if it hinders or enhances my reading.

Still, it does sound like a good book set during an intriguing time period.

I like the cover. It reminds me of some of Sandra Kring's book covers.

Ellen Booraem said...

Years of working as a newspaper editor have spoiled me for a lot of books, Stacy, even ones that I loved as a teen! It's the downside of honing your own skills, I guess.

Great review--very insightful comments. The book sounds like a great read, nevertheless.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Interesting--I edit, too, and find myself peeved by poor work on that count. Especially by award winning books.

Barrie said...

Stacy, thanks for such an insightful review. Of course, we expect no less. :) Like you, I usually read the award winners. This one is in my TBR pile.

Barrie said...

I almost meant to say that I love the title of this book.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Good, comprehensive review. I mentally line edit books, all the time, and I think it's one of the downsides of learning the writer's craft.

How much do you love your iPad? I've been lusting after one ever since they came out. Maybe this year. :)

Sarahlynn said...

What a fabulous, well-written review.