Clare Vanderpool, Newbery-Medal winning author of the novels Moon over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) and Navigating Early (Delacorte, 2013), got her start by attending a writing workshop at The Milton Center, with which Image was associated in its early years and whose programs are now run by Image. While under a Milton fellowship in the mid-90s, I read one of her earliest works and now discuss her accomplishments in a two-part interview.
Moon over Manifest, set in depression-era Kansas, features 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, whose itinerant father arranges for her to stay in a small Kansas town where he spent his boyhood. There, Abilene is met by a variety of townspeople that have a story as mysterious to her as the reason her father has sent her away. Navigating Early, set in post-WWII New England, tells the tale of young Jack Baker, whose military father puts him in a Maine boys’ school following the death of Jack’s mother. Jack has to make his way in a new world, and finds himself befriended by a strange boy, Early Auden, who sets the two of them on an adventure to find something that everyone, except Early, believes is lost forever.
Continued from yesterday.
AGH: The idea of a youth setting out on a journey, on a “quest” to find himself, is in the line of romances, of chivalric literature, where the hero sets off to prove himself and earn his name. The second novel even has parallels to the Fisher King myth. Was that kind of literature an influence?
CV: I’m sure it was. My two sons grew up reading Tolkien and the Redwall books, so I knew how much questing books were valued by young readers. I read these books as an adult, but really all the books I’ve read throughout my life have gone into a story vault and somehow come out when I need them.
AGH: The novels are not overtly religious, but in the first, a nun and a Baptist preacher are central characters. In addition, you play with the metaphoric “Road to Perdition” in the first novel, which actually turns into a road to salvation. It seems the background of spiritual life is so natural to the times that you didn’t have to explain them or apologize for them being there. Is that a virtue of historical fiction?
CV: You may be right about that. But I’m just idealistic enough to think if religious or spiritual themes come from an honest place in the character and in the story, then any story can contain those aspects. I’m a big fan of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, and she talks of being asked about how she was able to be both Catholic and a writer—as though that dogma would inhibit her. But she said it was in fact freeing, as faith encompasses every aspect of human life. My world has been immersed in stories and language like this. The people of faith that I know are not stereotypes. They’re diverse, layered, and complex, all the things that make for great characters.
AGH: It’s refreshing that Sister Redempta provides Abilene with a challenge that sets the novel going.
CV: Yes, Abilene shows up in town and is sent to school, which happens to be the last day of classes. Sister Redempta, the teacher, gives her an assignment to be completed over the summer that leads her to find out about the town. That’s how she comes to learn about its story, and then ultimately, her own. Sister Redempta, like others in the community, knew what Abilene needed.
AGH: There are several remarks in Moon Over Manifest that touch upon those who dare to believe in the unbelievable—the preposterous—which is the realm of faith. One question is: “Who would dream that one can love without being crushed under the weight of it?” Can you comment upon that?
CV: A main character in the book—Miss Sadie (an immigrant fortuneteller who tells Abilene tales about the town’s past)—is the one who makes those statements. At the time she makes them, both she and the town of Manifest have been through so much that the answer to those questions would be “no”—that they were all fools to dream. What changes that answer is the telling of the stories—of how much they all meant to each other. That “recollects” them—reminds them—and brings them together again. I didn’t want to write a novel where a young girl comes into town and fixes everything. She doesn’t. She’s a listener, and it’s through the telling and hearing of tales—painful as some are—that the catharsis takes place.
CV: First of all, I find all of that enjoyable. Some of it came out of reading old newspapers from a town where my mother’s family lived in the early part of the last century—news accounts that have a flavor and character you don’t find anymore. Those papers asked readers to “remember when”—to look back from a time (the 1930s) to a generation before. But it served the first novel in a practical sense. How would Abilene piece together the town’s story? I just knew that whatever she was told would be indirect, in a slow, meandering stream. That also gives Abilene a lot of control; she learns the story to the extent she chooses to seek it out.
AGH: In both novels, a central theme is the absolution of children/adults from their guilt. In Navigating Early, a child is indirectly absolved, and a mother is indirectly given peace, through substitution. The character Jack has lost his mother and feels responsible for her loss; he comes to meet an old woman in the woods who long ago lost her young son, and has since lost touch with reality. The substitutionary model is also something familiar from the stories of salvation history. What suggested that part of the novel to you?
CV: It was important to me that once I realized who this old woman was, her part in the story and what she’d suffered, I wanted her to have some healing. The boy, Jack, needed that too. I decided to bring the two characters together to provide that for each. And I wanted it to be very real and intentional, not a supernatural or otherworldly type of moment.
AGH: No, it’s a very “natural” grace, but a grace nonetheless.
CV: Yes, it even says in the novel that they both “knew” that the other was speaking the words that they needed to hear, even though the words are not spoken by the ones they had lost. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, part of absolution is just hearing the words of forgiveness that you need to hear.
AGH: In both works, the characters come to live their lives in relation to some code of conduct. In Navigating Early, the character with which we identify, Jack, has his military father’s code he’s trying to live up to, as well as a different code that his deceased mother has imparted. He wants to get right by those codes. At the end, he understands himself in relation to them. In Moon Over Manifest, Abilene understands herself via a set place in time and location; after a lifetime of wandering, she has something to judge things against and live by. Can you comment on that?
CV: What you’ve described is just a natural part of growing up. You come into a world within a context, a family, a faith, a place, and you have to navigate your way through. Maybe that’s why I gravitate towards writing about adolescents. Everything is new to them, amplified. The questions are big. Jack is a good example. He’s lost his bearings. He’s lost his mother, his town, his friends, and his father has left him in a school at the edge of the ocean. He’s adrift and has to navigate through this strange and unfamiliar landscape. That’s part of who we are; we’re not islands; we’re surrounded by all kinds of codes. Part of growing up is figuring out what is true and what’s good and who you can trust. There’s an element in Navigating Early that pertains to fidelity. Early Auden is the model of absolute fidelity.
AGH: The navigational metaphors are akin to the things in a young life that help bring steadiness and calm and direction to what has been all tumult before.
CV: Yes. There are some things we have to decide for ourselves, like when Abilene decides what a true place is. She decides what is true for her, regardless of whether it’s true for others. But there are some things that are just true, plain and simple. And we gravitate towards those. One of the things that I believe is true is that the way we reveal and discover is through story—the telling and the listening. That’s both how we come to know ourselves and how we reveal ourselves to others.
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.
The above image is by Simple Insomnia, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.