Abilene Tucker has no recollection of her mother, so her world revolves around her father, Gideon. When he decides to send her to his hometown of Manifest, Kansas while he works on the railways in Iowa, loneliness overwhelms her. After twelve years of living like hobos, how could he possibly think that the conditions in Des Moines in 1936 would be too rough for her? Still, there is so much Abilene does not know about Gideon. Perhaps she can learn something about his childhood from Shady Howard, with whom she will be staying, and the other members of this community.
Although she has never been to Manifest, Abilene finds that everyone there is prepared to welcome her as one of their own. Most of them immigrated to the United States just before the First World War and came to work in the local mines. Shady, minister and bootlegger, puts her up in her father’s old bedroom, for apparently he took Gideon under his wing many years ago. In that room, Abilene finds a cigar box containing letters from a young WWI soldier and a few odds and ends: a cork, a fishhook, a silver dollar, a skeleton key and a small wooden doll. A strange assortment of objects, Abilene thinks. She cannot imagine what they have in common, until, through some mischief committed with her new local friends, Abilene finds herself face to face with a fortune teller, Miss Sadie. Abilene rightly puts no credence in the woman’s ability to tell the future. She soon realizes, however, that Miss Sadie is actually the town confidante and knows more about Manifest’s past, as well as the contents of that hidden cigar box, then anyone else. Miss Sadie relates the story of Jinx, a mysterious thirteen year old boy who appears in Manifest one evening and changes the fate of its inhabitants forever.
I cannot remember when I last read a children’s book as well written as this, Clare Vanderpool’s first novel. She weaves together the eras of the First World War and the Great Depression in an engaging and suspenseful way that keeps even adult readers guessing. Abilene is an endearing pre-teen who has not yet lost her childlike admiration for her father, despite (or perhaps because) of the hardships they have shared. Her experience enables her to size up the town of Manifest and its residents. Her compassion helps her to accept them as they are. Gradually Abilene learns that Jinx, in spite of his name, brought much good luck to his adopted home. Wanted for a murder he did not commit, Jinx works hard to evade the law. (The actual crime, a stabbing, is discussed, but not described in great detail.) At the same time, he enables the people of Manifest, previously divided along ethnic lines, to face discrimination and oppression together.
Parents may want to discuss two points with middle school aged readers: the activities of the Klu Klux Klan and the illegal sale of alcohol which is tacitly supported by the sheriff. Sure to become a classic, however, this novel is a must read for young (and not so young) adults.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.