Written by Caitlin O’ Keefe and Rachel Walman
Centennial Summer has officially started here at the New-York Historical Society! All summer we’re celebrating and reflecting on the milestones of 1917, and this month we have the perfect book to get you thinking about these events: Moon Over Manifest, the Newberry Award-winning tale of a young girl’s determination to uncover the WWI-era history of her town at any cost.
While we have paintings, artifacts, and a summer of dynamic programs to help us look at 1917’s history, Moon over Manifest’s protagonist Abilene Tucker has considerably fewer resources in her quest to learn more about the past. As a matter of fact, she has only a few mysterious mementos to help her dig into a history her town inexplicably wants to keep quiet, including one cork, one fishhook, one silver dollar, and one fancy key. However, as any good history detective can tell you, any object could have a surprising history to tell!
Want to discuss how Abilene’s history detective work turns out and do some of your own exploration of the events of 1917? Come to this month’s Reading into History Family Book Club Wrap, this Sunday, June 25, when we will be discussing Moon over Manifest! You’ll have the chance to learn more about World War I and its legacy through a guided tour of our stunning summer exhibition World War I Beyond the Trenches. We’ll also be Skyping with acclaimed author Clare Vanderpool! To prepare for our meeting, we interviewed Vanderpool about her novel.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In Moon Over Manifest, young Abilene Tucker gets sent to the sleepy town of Manifest, Kansas, for a summer during the Great Depression, and she ends up learning a lot about that town during the WWI era. What drew you to writing about these two time periods?
Clare Vanderpool: Initially, the book was going to be set only in the 1936 time period. Once I knew this was going to be a story about a young girl who had drifted from place to place with her dad, and who had never experienced home, the Depression was a logical time for that to have happened. I like historical fiction and I enjoy a good amount of research. The WWI time period happened mostly because when I started doing the research, I went over to my mom’s house and dug out my grandmother’s old photo albums. Most of those pictures, at least the ones I was particularly drawn to, were all from the 1918 time period. There were pictures of my young grandmother wearing a black dress on her 18th birthday. She was the only survivor in her family of the Spanish Influenza. There were pictures of my young grandfather in his WWI uniform.
The images were all in that sepia color, which just seems to jump start my imagination, and I began to realize that if Abilene was in this town looking for some insight into her father who had lived there for a time as a boy, she would be encountering people just like the ones in my photographs. And I just began toggling back and forth between the two periods as Abilene did through the letters and mementos she found and Miss Sadie’s stories.
DCHM: There are so many different and interesting characters in this novel. Do you have a favorite? Or at least someone you’d most like to have dinner with?
Clare Vanderpool: I really do love them all. If I lived in my story, I know I’d be friends with Abilene, Lettie, and Ruthanne. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Shady Howard. I’m sure in some ways, he is Abilene’s favorite as well. Shady is such a lovable, flawed, heroic character. I love that he has so many sides to him. He’s a bootlegger, an interim preacher, a friend to the stranger, and a grandfather figure to Abilene. I’d like to drop by his house for a catfish dinner, beans and burnt biscuits, and good conversation over a cup of black coffee.
DCHM: Did you get to explore any original artifacts, documents, or images from the WWI era or the Great Depression? If so, what were they and how did they influence your story?
Clare Vanderpool: I did have some of my own artifacts. In fact, several of the mementos that Abilene finds in the cigar box come from treasures of my own. I have a few Liberty Head silver dollars that belonged to my grandfather. Little Eva Cybulskis’ matryoshka doll was inspired by a nesting doll that I got on a trip to Alaska. And the skeleton key was one that has been in our house since it was built in 1920. I also found an old compass that is very much like the one in the story. While not exactly artifacts, I also pored through newspaper articles, yearbooks, and first-hand accounts from both time periods. There was a particularly helpful book by a WWI soldier that added so much to the depiction of Ned in the book.
DCHM: Did you learn anything about American history in the course of writing this book that really surprised you?
Clare Vanderpool: I learned a great deal about the Great Depression, WWI, Prohibition and bootlegging, the immigrant experience, and coal mining…in Kansas! I think what really surprised me was that although the world is a very different place today than it was a hundred years ago, we are still struggling with many of the same issues. And in very real ways, we are not that different from the people in Manifest, Kansas. We’re all looking for community, belonging, and a place to call home.
DCHM: What three words best describe Moon Over Manifest?
Power of Story.