Abilene Tucker is one tough gal. She's lived all twelve years of her life on the road, moving from one town to the next with her dad, Gideon. She feels most at home when she's hanging with the homeless men by the train tracks at night. She even knows how to jump off a moving train herself, for cryin' out loud.
So it's not surprising that she's a pretty confident girl. Not everyone could handle such a rough-and-tumble life. It's when Abilene settles down in one place that things start to shake her up—but when she comes out on the other side, she's more sure of herself than ever.
It's no wonder that Abilene feels wise beyond her years. She's seen things that even most grown-ups never have to deal with:
I've lived in a lot of places. Barns, abandoned railroad cars, even Hoovervilles, the shack towns for folks with no money. […] So I was prepared for anything. (3.60)
With those kinds of experiences, she's confident that she can handle whatever life throws at her.
Think about it: in each of these places, she's been the outsider, the newcomer. She's had to learn how to deal with introducing herself to strangers and finding her place in a new town on a regular basis. As she puts it, "'Well, I'm Abilene. I'm twelve years old and a hard worker,' I said, like I had a hundred other times in as many towns" (3.14). This girl's got her whole identity summarized in an eight-word sentence, for easy access.
In order to fit in as quickly as possible at each new stop, Abilene assumes a "new girl" persona that she thinks makes things easier:
Mind you, I don't really say y'all, but it's usually best to try to sound a bit like the folks whose town you're moving into. (3.15)
Other than the accent, Abilene's most brilliant defense against feeling like an outsider is her list of universals. We'll let her explain:
My one consolation was that I knew these kids. Even if they didn't know me. Kids are universals. […] Every school has the ones who think they're a little better than everybody else and the ones who are a little poorer than everybody else. And somewhere in the mix there's usually ones who are pretty decent. (5.2)
After living in so many different places, but seeing the same types of people over and over again, Abilene has learned what to expect. But does she really know these people? Or is it all just a superficial judgment? After all, she's putting on an act, so who's to say these people aren't, too?
Little Orphan Abilene
To make her stay in Manifest even harder, she's there without her daddy. And that's not something she's used to:
I'd been in and out of schools before, but I'd always been in the protective shadow of my daddy. Here I was alone and exposed to the heat and clamor of the day. (4.10)
She's out on her own for the first time ever, and there's no one to fall back on if she needs support. The childhood certainties she has all stored up are going to come crashing down around her real quick. She seems to know it, too, because she realizes that she should probably make friends. And she totally does.
The person she's most focused on getting to know, though, is her own father. Being apart from him makes her long for some kind of connection, so when Miss Sadie starts telling her story, Abilene hopes with all her heart that Jinx is actually her daddy: "I'd started imagining maybe I had found him. I imagined that Jinx and Gideon were the same person" (23.7).
Why do you think she wants Jinx to be her dad? Is it because she can relate to Jinx's situation of being new in town, and the only person she's ever felt this connected to before is her dad? Is it because she sees a lot of herself in Jinx? Either way, she's just dying for answers—she's not used to this new sensation of vulnerability.
Coming of Age
At the same time, all this uncertainty is helping Abilene grow up. She's questioning things she's never questioned before, thinking about things she's never thought about before:
Maybe the world wasn't made of universals that could be summed up in neat little packages. Maybe there were just people. (17.84)
Aha! Opening herself up to the risk of really getting to know someone has helped her to a new, more mature understanding of the world. And with that maturity comes a new self-confidence. Once she knows the whole story of her daddy, and Manifest's difficult past, she takes on the role of healer in many ways:
(1) She heals Miss Sadie, whose story helped her find this new self-assurance: "Kneeling beside her, I held the hot blade to her wound and pierced it, letting all the pain flow out" (40.8).
(2) Her trip into the past has healed the town of Manifest, too: "All the Remember When stories in the paper had folks talking about the way Manifest used to be. […] And how people used to take care of each other. There were tears too, but they seemed to be healing tears" (42.2).
(3) Most importantly to Abilene, she heals her own daddy's broken heart: "He held his face next to mine, and when he looked straight into my eyes with tears in his, I knew. And he knew. We were home" (42.28).
Even her dad ends up learning from her new wisdom and finally rejoins the community that he had been running from his whole life. Not bad for a summer's work, huh?