Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker has no memory of her mother; she has only her father, Gideon. Since she was a small child, she has been secure in his love and has not at all minded the hardscrabble, itinerant life they shared. Recently, though, things have begun to change. While riding in a boxcar one day with her daddy, Abilene hurt her knee badly, and the resulting infection almost killed her. Gideon concluded that the little he had to offer was “not fit living for a girl [her] age,” so with little explanation he put his beloved daughter on a train to Manifest, the small Kansas town where he had once lived.
Abilene arrives in Manifest in May 1936 with little more than “her traveling pack and a good head on her shoulders.” She carries a few mementos of her past life, the most precious of which is her father’s compass, which is inscribed with the words “St. Dizier, October 8, 1918.” Gideon has arranged for her to stay with Shady Howard, a close-mouthed, mysterious man whom Abilene nonetheless senses she can trust.
Shady lives in a quirky abode that is a cross between a church and a saloon. Beneath a loose floorboard in the small but cozy room he has prepared for her, Abilene discovers an old cigar box that contains a pack of letters, a map of the town, a fishing lure, a Liberty Head silver dollar, and a skeleton key, among other things. When Abilene reads the first letter, she finds that it was written by a boy named Ned Gillen to someone affectionately called Jinx. Ned is going away and is leaving Jinx his treasures. Ned asks Jinx to “keep watch on the homefront” and has drawn up a map of Manifest so Jinx “will know what is important.”
Although Gideon never exactly said he would return, Abilene holds onto the belief that Gideon will come for her by summer’s end. In a fit of desolation during her first night in town, she asks Shady how far Manifest is from where Gideon is working in Des Moines, Iowa. Shady replies that though he does not know exactly, he is certain
a fella in Des Moines can see the same moon you are looking at right now.
Abilene tries to ease her longing for her father during the long summer days by searching for evidence of his past in Manifest. Because she is certain she will be leaving soon, she tries to remain detached from the people in her new surroundings but finds that she is slowly drawn into their lives through their small kindnesses. Hattie Mae Macke, who single-handedly produces the local newspaper, gives Abilene access to old editions dating back twenty years. Classmates Lettie and Ruthanne befriend her, providing amiable companionship as she works to uncover the secrets behind the letters and the other items in the box she has found. Shady Howard, in his quiet way, is sensitively recognizant of her competing needs for nurturing and freedom. Sister Redempta, the local elementary school teacher and midwife, encourages Abilene to “watch and listen” and enigmatically advises her to look up the word manifest in the dictionary; as a verb, it means “to reveal, to make known.”
In a “dilapidated old house” near Shady’s place is Miss Sadie’s Divining Parlor, an establishment viewed with suspicion by many of the locals. Abilene loses her father’s compass on Miss Sadie’s property and breaks an old stone pot trying to retrieve it. In recompense, she agrees to work for Miss Sadie over the summer. During the course of her visits, Miss Sadie, prompted by Abilene’s description of the letters and mementos in the hidden cigar box, shares “the story she needs to tell” and which Abilene longs to hear.
It is October 1917, and thirteen-year-old Jinx is on the run. Abandoned by his father and devastated by the recent death of his mother, Jinx has been taken in by his unscrupulous Uncle Finn, who makes a dubious living on the road, swindling people out of their money. In a nearby town, Finn has gotten into an altercation with another man about his underhanded dealings. In the ensuing melee, Jinx is knocked unconscious and the man is killed. Finn, who has already brainwashed young Jinx into believing he is cursed by a “shadow of bad luck,” blames the murder on him and decrees that they should no longer travel together, to better avoid detection.
Jinx leaps from a passing boxcar by a creek near Manifest and runs into seventeen-year-old Ned Gillen, who is fishing. Jinx offers Ned a vial of “Arctic glacial water” (to make him more appealing to the ladies) in exchange for a fish he has caught, still on the lure. A short time later, Jinx runs into Ned again, but this time they must precipitously conceal themselves as a group of Ku Klux Klansmen converges on the area. From their hiding place, Ned points out the Klan’s leader, Arthur Devlin, who owns the local mine and essentially controls everything about the town.
Manifest in 1917 is a hotbed of bigotry and oppression. The population is made up largely of immigrants who have come to work in the mine. The men who run the mine conspire to keep the workers separated by nationality; by keeping “each to his own kind,” they prevent the miners from joining together and rising up against them. Ned himself is an outsider of sorts, having come to Manifest as a child on an orphan train. Because his background is unknown, he belongs to everyone—and to no one.
Miss Sadie has been in Manifest for more than twenty years, but she still lives on the periphery of society. She has an aura of foreignness...
(The entire section is 2321 words.)