Tuesday, February 01, 2011

What We're Reading

2011 Newbery Award Winner: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.

I will perhaps be in the minority, but I find the selection of Moon Over Manifest as last year’s Newbery Award winner to be a troublesome choice. Once again, it seems that a Newbery committee has made a selection that perhaps 40 or 50 year old librarians might be expected to find congenial and to their tastes, but it is difficult imagining that this book will ever be a popular reading choice among its intended readership of young people. In part that may be because it is not of the pace, style, or subject matter that is popular with young readers these days, but more fundamentally, the meaning and themes of the book, a story of redemption and loss, are subjects that require adult experience to understand. A book that tells such a story from the perspective of a contemporary 12 year old narrator, who explores her connection to a community that has changed over a period of 18 years or more in time, exploring its largely adult problems and secrets, is ultimately a book about that community and its people. They become the major protagonists of the story, and their story and its relationship to the life of the young narrator is incidental rather than necessary. It seems doubtful to me that young readers would be able to identify with a book framed in this way.

This basic problem, however noble the ambition of telling a story that attempts to honor the historical past and explain its relevance to contemporary life, in turn creates for this reader other problems with the novel as children’s literature. The young narrator does not know the history of the town to which she has been mysteriously exiled and would not be able even if she did to give us the adult perspective on that history that is required for our understanding and appreciation of the story. To deal with this, the device is used of alternating the revelation of the events of 1918 with the current time frame of the novel, 1936. The 1918 events are narrated by a mysterious diviner to our young protagonist in alternating chapters. Contemporary events are told to us in the voice of the young protagonist. The result is to create an immediate problem with voice in the novel. There is no single voice. The young narrator’s voice seems perhaps plausible enough, but a bit stiff at times, and I’m not sure how much insight her speech gives about her character, which remains rather flat compared to the lively portraits of others we meet in the book. But the diviner, who speaks with a heavy Hungarian accent in the contemporary scenes, and seems to speak some version of straightforward Midwestern prose when we read what is supposed to be her retelling of historical events, creates a voice that is not only inconsistent with the teller, but because it occupies half of the novel’s narrative, competes with the power that a story told in a single voice might have if told by only the young narrator.

The large supporting cast contains some interesting and well drawn characters, but an important one, that of a 12 year old boy who figures largely in the book, a character who is supposed to be a clever charlatan and con-man, is again a problem. His speech does not sound like a young boy would speak in any era, and his characterization depends too much on what we hear of him by others rather than any sense of him that we develop from his own words.

This is a first novel, and maybe that is also part of its attraction to librarians who always are dreaming of writing one. But it suffers from the faults of first novels. It is very self-consciously plotted and constructed. It feels overwrought and the scaffolding of its construction too plainly apparent. There are many twists and small mysteries, but they seem like plotting devices to hold interest rather than necessary or essential elements to telling the story. They seem to betray almost a lack of faith in the power of the story itself, a machine we feel intuitively ought to go of itself. Period detail is impressive, well researched, and abounds, but it is not that alone that can give us a sense of a different period and time. We depend on meeting people we have never met before, people who do not exist anymore, that we can yet somehow come to understand and connect with. And in a novel written for children, it seems especially important that the children we meet are, in that respect, successful imaginative creations. There is impressively much here, some may find it gloriously much, but I think perhaps it is just too much for an audience of young readers.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Hmm, I am glad to know your opinion about this book. I've been feeling guilty about my lack of enthusiasm to pick this book up. Maybe someday; but, for now, I'll relax a little and enjoy my humorous Terry Pratchett book. (P.S. Miss you.)