by Clare Vanderpool
First sentence: “The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby.”
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First off: I’ve got a local author! YAY! I really had no idea (honestly, I get the book notes from our local independent bookstore, but I’m not always the best about reading it thoroughly, so I missed it when they announced her) when I started the book, but it’s set in Southeast Kansas, so I flipped to the author blurb to see what credentials this author had for writing about Kansas. I was quite pleasantly surprised to find out that she’s here in Wichita. Pleasantly surprised is too mild. I was quite excited!
I do have to admit that I was a bit anxious as well: what if I didn’t like the book?
I shouldn’t have worried.
Alternating between two time periods, the Great Depression in 1936 and World War I in 1918, 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. And, by digging up the past, 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 non committal. How about Kansas? ) I could tell that Vanderpool knows her stuff (well, she is a native Kansan; 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, fiesty 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 captivating read. I’m really looking forward to Vanderpool’s next work. And not just because she’s a local author.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)