It's May 27, 1936, and Abilene Tucker has been sent by her daddy, Gideon to the town of his boyhood, Manifest, Kansas. She is to spend her summer there with an old friend, Pastor Shady Howard, while he works on a railway job back in Iowa. It's been the two of them for so long drifting from place to place that Abilene fights her loneliness and sets her considerable plucky sights on finding out about her father's past.
Armed with her father's compass wrapped in an old 1917 Manifest Herald newspaper and her first night discovery of a cigar box of small tokens, letters and a map hidden beneath the floor boards of her bedroom, Abilene and two new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne set out to unravel the mystery of the Rattler in a town filled with secrets. An unfortunate accident with a debt to repaid matches Abilene with a town eccentric, Miss Sadie, a diviner.
Through Miss Sadie's stories of the past, a collection of newspaper articles, Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary and humorous newspaper ads from 1917, threads from bygone days are woven together to complete a truly heartwarming tapestry of the 1936 present.
About halfway through the book I had an uncontrollable urge to start marking passages with sticky notes due to the insight and beauty of Vanderpool's writing. It is evening and Abilene is musing about her day---
The moonlight shone on the silver dollar and I thought of Miss Sadie's story of Jinx and Ned. Of Uncle Louver's ghost story. Of Lettie's story about having had her fill. Of Ned's letters and Hattie Mae's "News Auxiliaries," that I read like bedtime stories. And of Gideon's story I was struggling to learn. If there is such a thing as a universal--and I wasn't ready to throw all of mine out the window---it's that there is power in a story. And if someone pays you such a kindness as to make up a tale so you'll enjoy a gingersnap you go along with that story and enjoy every last bite.
What a powerful truth that is and how it was placed in this book is perfect. Near the end when Abilene has nearly fulfilled her obligation to Miss Sadie we read,
I knew the choice in front of me. I could walk out of that divining parlor right then and be done with it all. I could leave Miss Sadie behind and never come back. But I knew these people, Jinx and Ned, and Velma T. Shady and Hattie Mae. Even Mrs. Larkin. They'd become part of me. And I loved them. What else had Miss Sadie said? "Who would dream that one can love without being crushed under the weight of it?"
Decision made we follow this delightful character and the complete cast of 1917 and 1936 townspeople caught up in the trends, prejudices and tides of their histories to a conclusion that is so savory and delicious we just know that it won't be long before this book will be in our hands to be read again. Well done, Newbery committee, well done.