You know what's really hard? Telling a story about death and pain, cons and spies—and still making the town where it all goes down seem cozy and friendly anyway. The tone in Moon Over Manifest really is warm and inviting in spite of all the mischief, violence, and hard times the characters are experiencing.
From the welcoming, familial attitudes of the characters ("'Now go get your pop and a sandwich, sweet pea'" [3.41]) to the descriptions of the dilapidated buildings ("I kicked off my shoes and felt the cool floorboards shift and groan beneath my feet as if the room was adjusting to sudden occupation after being long empty" [3.71]), the book just radiates homey-ness.
And when bad things happen, it seems like there's always someone there to lend a helping hand. Take this moment, for example: "Jinx sat to the side of the stage, his shoulder in a bandage and sling. Shady brought him a glass of punch" (38.23). Sure, graveyards and guns are scary, but if you live in Manifest, don't worry too much—you'll be just fine.
Moon Over Manifest is falls right smack dab in the historical fiction genre: it's set in the past (1936 and 1918), and it puts fictional characters against a real historical background. The end.
But what makes Moon Over Manifest an extra-fancy type of historical fiction is the way it weaves two real timelines—World War I and the Great Depression—into the fictional timeline of this fictional town of Manifest. Talk about complex.
Through the mix of history and fiction, we can better understand the real people who lived through those events, since we're plunked down among people just like them. It's almost like we get to join the community of Manifest, too. Hope Shady saved us some coffee…
Moon Over Manifest seems like kind of a weird title for this book—until you get to Abilene's first night at Shady's place. Her dad is in Des Moines, and she asks Shady how far away that is from Manifest. Here's his answer:
"Well, Des Moines is a lot closer than that moon. Fact is, I bet a fella in Des Moines can see the same moon you're looking at right now. Doesn't that just beat all?" (3.83)
So the moon is a link between Abilene and her dad, but it's also a link between her dad and Manifest. And for that matter, it's actually a link between everyone in Manifest, no matter the time period. In one of his letters from the front, Ned asks Jinx, "Big orange harvest moon in your piece of the sky yet?" (32.152). Everyone can see the same moon that their family and friends can see—and the same moon that everyone in the past saw, too.
In a book that's all about connections, we'd say it's an appropriate title.
Our very last glimpse of Manifest comes in one of Hattie Mae's newspaper articles. But this time, she's signing off for good, and announcing her replacement: Abilene Tucker. Not only has Abilene cemented her place in her new home, she's become a leader, someone everyone will turn to for years to come "for all the whos, whats, whys, whens, and wheres" (43.12).
And by writing the News Auxiliary column, she's once again connecting Manifest's past and future. Think about it:
This column is precious to Abilene and the entire town, so what better way to end the story? And what do you think: how will Abilene keep guiding the town towards community in her new column?
Don't just gloss this one over. After all, the setting is basically the most important aspect of Moon Over Manifest. How do we know?
(1) It's historical fiction. (Check out "Genre" for more.) That means history (a.k.a. setting) is a Big Deal.
(2) The name of the setting is right in the title: Manifest.
The whole stinkin' story revolves around Manifest.
But it's even more complicated than that. Manifest has a much deeper meaning than just being the place where everything happens. It represents hope, home, community, pain, and loss for all its townspeople. The town sign used to say: "MANIFEST: A TOWN WITH A RICH PAST AND A BRIGHT FUTURE" (1.1), but it's been shot up so much that now it only says: "MANIFEST: A TOWN WITH A PAST" (1.10). And it takes two outsiders to the town—Jinx and Abilene—to bring the townspeople there together as a community.
Why weren't they a community to begin with? Well, 1918 Manifest was a town of immigrants, and everyone had a different background and a different language. They needed a common cause to bring them closer—and Jinx helped with that. When Abilene gets there 20 years later, they need something different: in order to heal the divisions in the community, they need the truth of their past to be revealed.
I looks like Sister was right to have Abilene look "manifest" up in the dictionary: "a list of passengers on a ship" (26.78) and "to reveal, to make known" (26.80). The town name says it all, and the setting really determines this whole story.
Let's not forget the tiny matter of what's going on during the two historical time periods in which our fictional stories are set. (See the "Genre" section for even more on that.)
(1) 1918. Hmmm, let us think. What was going on then? Oh, ever heard of a little spat known as World War I? Pretty important for our story, too, since Ned goes off to fight, and a big chunk of the rest of Jinx's life is affected by Ned's death at war.
(2) In 1936, the Great Depression was still in full swing. People were struggling to survive, and at the same time members of the KKK (whom we see in the book) were making things even worse in the years leading up to World War II.
Needless to say, we're in two majorly important eras right here. So while we focus in on little Manifest, Kansas, we can't forget that the rest of the world was spinning right alongside it.
Even though there are a bajillion different narrators in this book, they're all old-timey, small-town folk who use a pretty simple language. And yes, their storylines are constantly weaving through each other, but the author keeps each one really distinct—she even uses different fonts for each one. Now wasn't that nice of her? You should call her up and thank her sometime.
Did you ever do that awesomely fun project in kindergarten where you weave different-colored strips of construction paper together to make a placemat? Well, that's the way Moon Over Manifest is put together: you've got two different storylines weaving over and under and over and under, until they finally join up to create a really cute pattern that your teacher laminates and you can use to eat your lunch on. Wait—sorry, we got a little confused there.
The story itself is woven out of several different parts:
As Abilene says, "All I know is that her story flowed in and out of mine" (40.8).
But the way the characters speak also gives the book the feel of many different parts coming together to make a whole. You've got Miss Sadie's Hungarian accent flavoring her dialogue, the country talk that lots of townspeople use floating around, and then the foreign accents of the immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Poland, Greece. With everything from "But the Widow Cane, she is dead, no?" (22.39) to "Aye, it'll be a right bloody battle to keep that land away from Devlin" (22.46), it's definitely a melting pot in here.
Miss Sadie puts it best when she says, "[s]omething greater than the sum of its parts" (25.76).
Abilene's most prized possession is… broken.
But don't break out the tissues quite yet—it's been that way for a long time. Luckily, Abilene isn't using the compass for direction (since it's pretty wonky). See, it's her dad's compass, so it's just about her only connection to her father since he sent her away for the summer.
I liked imagining that the chain of that broken compass was long enough to stretch all the way back into his pocket, with him at one end and me at the other. (1.5)
Sappy? Yes. But in terms of literature, we're pretty sure it means something. So let's take a look.
Because the compass reminds her of her dad, Abilene tries to keep it safe. But somehow or another, she keeps losing it. Oops. The first time she drops it (right when she arrives in Manifest) Shady gives it back. Crisis averted.
The second time, though, Miss Sadie finds it—and keeps it. Abilene tries to sneak over and snatch it back twice before she agrees to work for Miss Sadie in exchange for it. And she keeps her word: she doesn't take it back until Miss Sadie's done with her. And by then, Abilene knows the truth about the compass—it's the one Miss Sadie gave to her tiny son when she left him in America:
This was Ned's compass, on which Gideon had engraved Ned's date of death and place of burial. Because for my father, that was the day he began his wanderings in the valley of the shadow of death. (39.5)
As usual, Abilene has something that connects people who are spread out over time and distance.
But this something is different. Compasses are supposed to point you in the right direction, right? Show you the way? And this one's broken. It's almost as if Gideon is passing down his own lack of direction to his daughter—through the compass. Pretty neat, right?
And every time she loses the compass, the person who gives it back to her is her temporary guide, helping her find her way. First Shady becomes her compass, giving her a place to stay and showing her around. And then Miss Sadie takes over.
And by the time her story is finished, Abilene doesn't need a compass anymore. Now she can guide her own footsteps—and her daddy's, too, for that matter.
First of all, yes, Miss Sadie's leg infection is totally gross. But, nasty as it is, it's also symbolic. See, she cuts herself getting Abilene's compass, which is really her compass, which she gave to her son, Ned. And that's exactly the point: she gets a physical wound right alongside the emotional would of all those painful memories.
And just like the leg wound symbolizes her emotional wounds, the healing of the leg wound symbolized—you guessed it—the healing of her emotional wounds. So when Miss Sadie tells her the first part of her story, Abilene gets some ointment for her leg. By listening to the story of Miss Sadie's past, Abilene has started helping to heal the wound.
But not so fast.
The infection gets worse and worse as the story progresses (we'll spare you the gory details). While telling the story helps some ("It was as if the story was the only balm that provided any comfort" [18.29]), it doesn't cure it ("There is too much sickness inside and it festers" [35.6]). In order to heal completely, Miss Sadie will need to let everything out and finish the story in its entirety.
So that's what she does.
And only then does she let Abilene treat her: "Kneeling beside her, I held the hot blade to her wound and pierced it, letting all the pain flow out." (40.8) Finally, her troubled heart—and her leg—can heal.
So, we know that quilts are comfy and warm and perfect for snuggling up under on a cold winter's night with a book and a cup of hot cocoa. Sigh. But did you know they can also be symbolic? Hmmm, maybe that's what makes them so cuddly.
In 1918, Mrs. Larkin asks each of the ladies of Manifest to contribute a square to the victory quilt she'll be putting together. She plans to present it to President Woodrow Wilson for his autograph and then auction it off to raise money for the troops. Nice thought, right? But when Miss Sadie stops by her house to drop off her square, Mrs. Larkin is not quite as nice. In fact, she's pretty awful. And we quote:
"The deadline has passed and the quilt is full. Besides, as president of the DAR, it is my responsibility to ensure the suitability of anything going before the president of the United States. Involvement of someone of your profession would be inappropriate, to say the least." (16.46)
Wow. Talk about mean. And if think of the quilt as representing the town of Manifest (which we at Shmoop do), then it shows us exactly how fragmented the citizens are: some squares (and some citizens) are accepted and sewn together to make the fabric of the design (or the town), while others are rejected and kept apart from the rest.
But look what happens when Jinx comes to town and gets up to his mischief:
The unfortunate explosion of fireworks in the water tower—and subsequent dousing of the president and the newly signed victory quilt—was a somewhat surprising turn of events. (16.124)
His influence on the town literally throws cold water on their mean behavior—represented by that quilt—and forces them to start over. And once Abilene gets involved twenty years later, the town is finally ready to join together without any prejudice:
And the women were piecing together another quilt, only this time, instead of a victory quilt, it was a friendship quilt, and they asked Miss Sadie to make the center square. (42.4)
Would you look at that? Miss Sadie has become the center of the town by helping heal it with her story. Looks like Manifest is finally one big, comfy, friendly quilt.
Oh, boy. Are you really ready for this? Moon Over Manifest is told from approximately 476 different points of view. Well, okay, more like four. But still. It's nuts.
Let's take a look:
Okay, so let's zoom out and see how many layers of storytelling we've got here:
First, we have the story of Manifest in 1918, which is being told from three different angles:
(1) Ned's letters home, giving us a real, first-hand connection to the history.
(2) Miss Sadie's story, which gives us the inside, up-close-and-personal insights of an attentive mother.
(3) Hattie Mae's take, which backs everything up and gives us the big picture.
And then, of course, we have the story of Manifest in 1936...
(4) ... told by Abilene in the moment.
So there they are—476… ahem, four different stories.
Having all these different points of view contributing to the same story gives us a real sense of all the different townspeople that make Manifest what it is—a real community.
The exposition takes a while in Moon Over Manifest, and it's no wonder. We have to be introduced first to Abilene and the inhabitants of 1936 Manifest: Shady, Hattie Mae, Sister Redempta, and Lettie and Ruthanne. But then we also have to get to know the 1918 town of Manifest, through Miss Sadie and her initial story about Ned and Jinx. It's like speed dating—can you keep them all straight?
Since we've got two stories going on at once now, we've got two complications to deal with. Abilene's comes when she breaks Miss Sadie's pot and has to start working off her debt at her house. And since she's hearing more of Jinx's story each day she's there, her complication brings about the one in Miss Sadie's tale: Arthur Devlin is mean enough to his miners as it is, but when he gets his KKK members to burn a cross in front of the German miners' hall, the town decides they've had enough.
Many conflicts lead to… many crises. In our 1936 storyline, one turning point is when Abilene finds the Rattler with her memory contest; she's beginning to provide some closure to a town mystery.
Meanwhile, Miss Sadie's leg infection is at its worst, which prompts her to finish telling her story all the way to the end. And what's going on in that story? Jinx and the townspeople stick it to Arthur Devlin and Lester Burton, managing to buy the land they need as a bargaining tool. Plus, Jinx manages to survive an attack by his uncle Finn. Both events allow Jinx and the town to start over and try to live a better life. Man, these kids are busy, huh?
Jinx leaves town again when he finds out about Ned's death, and Abilene figures out that Jinx is actually her father. Her engagement with Miss Sadie's story has given the fortune-teller a way to get over her grief and has brought the town back together. So basically, our girl Abilene heals all the wounds that Jinx had caused. Nice.
When Abilene tricks her dad into coming back for her, she manages to merge her story with Jinx's. They're both home in Manifest for good now, and everyone in town gets a second chance. Yee-haw.
You'd think, in a work of historical fiction, that there'd be a few more references to real historical people. But in Moon Over Manifest, the focus is much more on the fiction part of historical fiction. The author throws out a few names to help us orient ourselves as to what's going on in the wider world, but the town of Manifest and its inhabitants are what this book's really concerned with.