You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children. — Madeleine L’Engle
Clare Vanderpool has this quote on her website, and I’d have to agree–sometimes books for young readers are incredible in their depth, perception, and bravery in dealing with difficult topics. Moon Over Manifest, our young readers pick for Kansas, is one of those.
It takes place in southeastern Kansas, and while the town of Manifest is fictional, Vanderpool writes in her Author’s Note that it is based on Frontenac, and that her grandparents were from that area. (Vanderpool lives in Wichita.) The book is split between events that occur in 1918 and 1936, and it tackles a wide range of topics–loneliness and abandonment, the Great Depression and life on the train tracks, prohibition and bootlegging, con men, fortune tellers, nuns, the orphan trains, immigration, the KKK, World War I and the Spanish flu, mining and labor conditions–there’s just so much here.
For me, one of the most surprising things about this book was that Manifest was a coal-mining town, however I found quite a bit of information about coal mining in southeastern Kansas on the Kansas Historical Society site, and the area was certainly a coal-mining region in 1918. The site even talks about the influx of immigrants from all over Europe who worked in the mines, much as in the book.
One related aspect that Vanderpool didn’t use in her book was the “Amazon Women.” Apparently the United Mine Workers had agreed not to strike during World War I (and I suppose that the actions of the mine workers in Manifest weren’t technically a strike), but shortly after the war ended in November 1918, the union started agitating to improve conditions. The miners went on strike, and the Kansas governor petitioned the state supreme court to commandeer the mines and hire college students as scabs. In December 1921, a group of about 6000, mainly female family members of striking miners, calling themselves an Amazon Army, marched from mine to mine, protesting the scab workers, blocking mine entrances, and even dousing the strike breakers with red pepper flakes. Many of the women were pregnant or carrying infants and toddlers, but many also carried American flags and sang patriotic songs to show that they were truly American despite their “lawlessness.” According to the poem on the Amazon Women page, the Kansas State Militia was called in to try to prevent violence and keep the mines operating.
I’m a little surprised, having discovered this tidbit, that Vanderpool didn’t use it in her book. The obvious reason is that the book takes place in 1918 and 1936 (skipping over 1921). However, it seems like it would have been fairly easy to insert a reference to the Amazon Army, perhaps in Hattie Mae’s column. It seems a missed opportunity since the hardships of work at the mine were an important theme in the book.
Another somewhat missed opportunity would seem to be the (under)development of the Klan. I was surprised that after the cross-burning incident the Klan pretty much disappears. We see more corrupt and bigoted behaviors from certain characters who (thanks to the earlier scene) we know are Klan members, but the Klan itself doesn’t reappear. Perhaps this is meant as a sign that the townspeople coming together has driven the Klan into hiding (at least temporarily)?
All in all, though, I really enjoyed this book, especially the humor. There were some real gems, like this description of the newspaper office:
A typewriter sat on a cluttered desk, its keys splayed open with some scattered on the desk like it tried to spell explosion and the explosion happened.
Or the scene where Jinx substitutes poison ivy leaves for the newsprint toilet paper in the Klan’s outhouse. And a couple of Abilene’s and Shady’s jokes too, like this one after he’s fixed the “explosion” from the typewriter:
“Now she can get back to her whos, whats, and wheres and I can get the L out of here.” Gideon hadn’t told me that Pastor Howard had a sense of humor. Seemed nobody had told Pastor Howard either, as he didn’t let on like he thought it was funny.
Or the story about the great-aunt who had hosted her own funeral on her 74th birthday so she would have the benefit of hearing all the nice things people said about her, but whose family had decided, after her second and actual funeral, not to do that again because it was too difficult finding new nice things to say!
There were a few lovely bits about place as well, both about place and home in general, and about southeastern Kansas in particular, like this bit of sage advice given to Abilene about her new home:
“There’s a river that when it’s in Arkansas, you can say it like that. The Ar-kan-saw River. But once it hits Kansas, it’s called the Ar-kansas River. That’s kind of important.”
There weren’t any birds in Moon Over Manifest (we’ve really hit a dry spell!), but there was some Kansas nature and herbal wisdom:
I walked alongside, our feet crunching through twigs and leaves in the moonlight. I was on another one of Miss Sadie’s nature errands. She’d had me do all manner of divining, as she called it. Things like venturing out at dusk to collect blue moss from under a fallen sycamore tree, and getting up at sunrise to gather a handful of dandelions before the morning dew burned off. The tasks were always unusual and she’d mash whatever I’d brought back into a paste or a powder. To what end, I didn’t know.
And another set of herbs: “prickly poppy, toadflax, spiderwort, and skeleton weed. If that doesn’t sound like the makings of a witch’s brew, then I’m the queen of England.” The names of these herbs are wonderfully spooky, so I had to look them up!
Prickly poppy, from the Argemone genus, (according to this site) used to be used to help cleanse the body after childbirth and even to help in the event of a torn placenta, so I’m guessing Miss Sadie asked for this herb to use in herbal remedies for the woman in the story who had a baby. We don’t ever see her directly, but apparently Sister Redempta brings her something from Miss Sadie after the birth. The USDA fact sheet notes that cattle won’t even eat it during a drought because the thorns are so nasty, so I feel sorry for Abilene trying to pick some!
Toadflax goes by many different common names around the country–my mom called it butter & eggs–and it’s a common roadside weed. It’s even been classified as an invasive because it was brought over to the US by European immigrants who used it as a medicinal herb. The Latin name is Linaria vulgaris, and it’s been used in folk remedies for a number of things, but I suspect that Miss Sadie requested this one for the new mother as well, because of its reputation for helping with hemorrhoids.
Spiderwort is also one of many common names for a large number of plants that fall in the Tradescantia genus, including this lovely purply-blue trefoil flower I remember from my mom’s garden, and a purple-leafed climbing variety, sometimes known as Wandering Jew, that is a common house plant. The purple-flowered variety (Tradescantia virginiana) is also said to help with “women’s complaints.”
Skeleton weed, named for its thin, spindly appearance, is a member of the daisy family, and is also considered a noxious invasive weed, but at one time it was used to promote milk production in women following childbirth, which would account for Miss Sadie’s request for it. (Although the variety in the book had purple flowers.)
Kansas has not been very notable for its food–or at least food scenes in our books–but Moon Over Manifest delivers a bit better on this front, including frog legs!
Mama’s going to have the frying pan ready to fry up some frog legs for supper.” Frog legs, huh? When you were hungry most of the time, you learned to eat what you could get. Still, frog legs sounded a bit exotic even to me. But the three of us set off into the woods on my first frog-hunting expedition.
My mom talked about eating frog’s legs (and turtle soup), growing up in rural upstate New York in the 1940s, and I must admit I did try them when I spent a summer in the way southeastern corner of Missouri, but mostly, when I think of frog legs, I think of the original Muppet Movie, where Doc Hopper wants Kermit to become the spokesfrog for his fast food chain. Kermit shudders and says something about millions of frogs on tiny crutches.
In the 1918 sections of Moon Over Manifest, food was used as a way to show the differing nationalities of the immigrants:
The Italians baked everything from cannelloni to ziti. The Swedes served up braided bread and hard baked pretzels, while the Germans and Austrians touted their strudels and bierochs.
Vanderpool does a wonderful job weaving together the different threads of the story and connecting them, and I loved the way she used the mementos from the cigar box and the old newspaper clippings as a means for Abilene to confirm Miss Sadie’s stories. We, as readers, know that Abilene is a skeptic who doesn’t take things at face value–someone familiar with a good con game–so if she accepts the story we are more likely to suspend our own disbelief.
As I said, there’s just so much in this book; I could spend hours posting on all the bits and pieces. This one was a really nice addition to my Kansas reading list.