2011. New York: Delacorte Press (trademark of Random House), 342 pages.
Genres: Young adult, historic fiction, mystery, coming of age
Ages: Grades 5 through 8 (but adult readers will love this book)
Features: List of characters, outstanding Author’s Note, list of sources
Check www.clarevanderpool.com for info on the author and a sample reading you will enjoy.
Some books just grab you from page one and won’t let go. I confess this book was one of those for me. The book opens in Southeast Kansas in 1936 . . . “The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby.” The narrator is Abilene Tucker–whose voice sounds hauntingly like that of Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Abilene’s father Gideon has taken a railroad job, and has sent Abilene to Manifest, Kansas to learn about his boyhood home. The big question is, will he return for her as he promised? No one is very reassuring on that count. So Abilene, torn amidst feelings of love, abandonment, and curiosity, spends her summer with newfound friends watching over Manifest from a rundown treehouse and searching for clues that will tell her something about her father’s past. She is inspired by a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including old letters referring to a character known only as the Rattler. Thus begins Abilene’s stint as a super sleuth–and as it turns out, she’s pretty good at it. Better than she lets on. The tale is filled with fascinating and unusual characters, all inspirationally depicted–but it takes a real turn when Abilene encounters the town’s diviner, Miss Sadie, who begins sharing stories about Ned and Jinx, two boys who inhabited Manifest in 1917. As Miss Sadie weaves her tales, the author sweeps us deftly from one time period to the other, leaving us to make connections that will help uncover the town’s many secrets. This is clearly a coming of age story–but like Harper Lee’s novel, it is deliciously shrouded in mystery and filled with moral choices. Vanderpool is careful not to reveal too much too quickly, and it will take an active reader’s imagination indeed to put all the puzzle pieces together. The book has multiple “endings,” each satisfying in its own way. Adult readers will appreciate the extraordinarily skillful organization, which is highly reminiscent of another novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. Prepare to love this book, and buy two because if you lend one, you may not get it back. To quote the author herself, it’s like “sucking on butterscotch. Smooth and sweet” (p. 1).
In the Classroom
1. Sharing aloud. If you read this book (or even a portion of it) aloud, plan to use a document camera so that you can help students notice the shifts in font that indicate new voices. Be sure to discuss this aspect of presentation. This book is an excellent candidate for literacy circles–but it raises issues that are excellent for whole-class discussion, too.
2. Historic references and research. Like all historic fiction, the book contains references that you may wish to explain or have students research prior to beginning a discussion of the novel itself. Examples include WWI, the Dustbowl, the Great Depression, bootlegging, Spanish influenza, speakeasy, Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, orphan trains, Ellis Island, and immigration. Clearly, the author has done considerable research prior to writing the book. Visit her website (www.clarevanderpool.com) to learn more about this. You may also wish to point out the Author’s Note at the end of the book, which provides many helpful annotations.
3. Genre. As you share or discuss the book, talk about genres. This is a novel, yes. But what subgenres contribute to the mix? Why is good writing so often a blend of multiple genres? Note: Students are often assessed within the confines of a particular genre (informational, persuasive, narrative). Does this approach have benefits–or is it too restrictive? What do your students think?
4. Organizational design. Many stories are told in direct chronological order: what happened first, second, after that, and last. Not this one. Author Clare Vanderpool uses an unusual and complex organizational structure to guide us through her tale. What features or strategies does she use to move us along? (Consider, for example, the shift in time between 1917 and 1936, the use of Ned’s letters, the stories told by Miss Sadie, the one-by-one revelations about the mementos in the cigar box, and the news columns by Hattie Mae). Would this be a difficult organizational design to emulate–or do your students see it as easy? Why? Do your students see any organizational elements they might try in their own writing?
5. Language: The famous quotation. A quotation from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick appears throughout the book: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” What does this quotation mean–and how does it apply to the book? Check the author’s website to learn how this quotation inspired her. (Could the expression “true place” refer to the concept of home? Is Manifest home for Abilene at the beginning of the story? How about at the end?)
6. Language: Manifest. The town featured in this book has an unusual name–Manifest. Sister Redempta wants Abilene to look up the meaning of this word. Why? What meanings are especially important to this story–or to our understanding of Abilene herself?
7. Character: The Rattler. As you go through the book, speculate on the possible identity of the Rattler. Do any of your students hit upon the truth prior to the end of the book? Do you think this author strikes a good balance between teasing us with clues and providing possible solutions? Does she tell us too much–or just enough?
8. Character: Abilene’s father. Abilene’s father Gideon remains mysteriously absent from the story. Why? Raise this question periodically as you read through the text to see if your perspective changes. (At the end of the novel, does the true identity of Abilene’s father come as a surprise?)
9. Important theme. Miss Sadie tells us throughout the book that people are not always what they seem. Of which characters is this particularly true? Or is it ultimately true of everyone?
10. The power of writing. The very act of writing plays a particularly important role in this book. Talk about the different ways in which writing affects the lives of various characters. Use quotations or events from the book to support your view.
11. Genre: Film. Ask students to sketch out a design for translating this story into a film. They might cast several of the primary characters, choose a setting (Should it be filmed in Kansas?), and outline the opening scene. Would they go back and forth between the novel’s two time periods: 1917-18 and 1936? Why is this important? Does it work better than telling the story straight through from 1917 to 1936? Why?
12. Ending. On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong is the ending to this book? Or in fact, are there several “endings” all working together? What, if anything, is predictable–and what comes as a surprise? Should a good ending have some elements of surprise? In a good ending, should everything turn out for the best–or, as in real life, do we have to accept that not everything turns out well?
13. Research. Take a few minutes to discuss the Author’s Note, pp. 343-346. How does author Clare Vanderpool use small things she learns or discovers to “build” her work of fiction–and tie it to reality? How could keeping a writer’s journal help your students to do this? Consider keeping such journals for a time (You keep one, too) and discussing the results.
14. Visual. As you read, create a class (or group) map or mural of Manifest. Watch as various places appear. How does doing this contribute to your understanding of the book?
15. Ethics. The residents of Manifest earn money they desperately need in a way some people might regard as unethical. What do your students think? Are the residents’ actions morally wrong–or defensible? Ask them to write a short persuasive essay defending their position, using quotations from the book.
16. Character: Abilene. Who is Abilene at the opening of the book? How would you describe her? Who has she become by the end of the book? Ask students to write a short comparative analysis, using quotations from the book to support their position.
17. Predictions. What will the town of Manifest be like five years from now? Have students answer this question by writing a short follow-up chapter, borrowing elements of the author’s design style if they wish. They should include a character list like the one in the front of this book.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Are you a history buff? If so, you are NOT going to want to miss our review of a long-hidden gem of a book, A Little History by E. H. Gombrich–a sample of nonfiction writing at its very best. As the author himself described it, “Not just a story, but our story, the story that we call the history of the world.” We’ll take a look at this book next week. Prepare to love it. And DO come back–because we are only a handful of visitors away from sending out our first door prize! It could go to YOU.