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Posts Tagged ‘Kansas’

Because I started writing this blog a year ago this week, I at first thought I’d do a “State of the Blog” post and thank all the readers and writers out there that have made “On a Clear Day I Can Read Forever” so worthwhile and fun, etc., etc. But then I got lost in a lupus fog, and when the mist cleared, I’d forgotten what I was going to write beyond that.

I did remember that my first post was about Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which had just won the prestigious Newbery Award for best children’s book, and its parallels with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which also won the Newbery in 1963. The time-travel tale was my favorite when I was a kid, just as it is of Miranda, the 12-year-old heroine of Stead’s story, which has its own mysterious elements. Middle-grade magical realism. Loved it.

This year’s winner of the Newbery, Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Mainfest, is as different as can be from When You Reach Me but equally engaging. In 1936 Kansas, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker hops off a train to spend the summer in her father’s small hometown while he works a railroad job in Iowa. Always before, Abilene has tagged along with her dad from town to town, job to job. She tries to be optimistic about again being the new girl among strangers and hopes to find out more about her dad’s boyhood.

But Manifest has changed over the years, from a thriving immigrant mining community to a dusty, rundown place. Abilene knows the country’s suffering from a Great Depression, but she thinks it’s more like a big rut, and Manifest has fallen hard. But then she finds a cigar box with some hidden letters and mementos that hint at  intriguing secrets from World War I, including a possible spy, the Rattler.

Was the spy for real? Through old newspaper clippings by Miss Hattie, and stories told by the Hungarian medium, Miss Sadie, at her divining parlor, Abilene and two new friends find out about the town’s past and the adventures of pals Ned and Jinx. There’s bootleggers, the KKK, a flu epidemic. Where does Abilene’s dad fit in?

This is Vanderpool’s first novel, but you’d never know it. Drawing on family stories and research, she crafts a rousing historical novel with characters to care about. Love it.

I also love serendipity. I don’t know Vanderpool, but she lives in Wichita, where I lived for five years many moons ago, and I’ve even been through Frontenac — on which Manifest is based — on my way to a writing conference at Pittsburg State University. It’s in Crawford County, the southeast part of the state, and the green, hilly landscape looks more like Ireland than the plains west of Wichita.

Vanderpool also used to work at Wichita’s wonderful independent bookstore, Watermark Books, which was one of my favorite haunts. I went to my first big BEA convention– then known as ABA — with the staff from Watermark, driving to Dallas in a white convertible. I wouldn’t have become a book reviewer and a writer if not for Watermark and Wichita. Congratulations to Clare Vanderpool on her terrific first novel, and thanks to her for reminding me of my Kansas adventures.

Open Book: I bought an e-book copy of Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Random House Children’s Book). Wish it had been a hardcover from Watermark.

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I knew the thunderstorm was on its way last night, not only because of the pillowing dark clouds in the distance but also because of the sharp smell of ozone and damp earth carried on the wind. Nancy Pickard  aptly titles her atmospheric new mystery, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, as she brews a family drama on the Kansas plains.

It was on one stormy summer night in 1986, with the rain coming down in torrents, that Hugh-Jay Linder, eldest son of a prominent ranching family in small-town Rose, was shot dead in his house, and his pretty wife Laurie disappeared. The only good things to come out of that night were the survival of  three-year-old Jody, out at the ranch with her grandparents, and the quick arrest and conviction of local malcontent Billy Crosby. But now, just as grown-up Jody has returned to Rose to teach high school, word comes from her three uncles that Crosby’s getting out of prison and returning to Rose as well. His lawyer son Collin has convinced the governor that Billy was railroaded and should get a new trial.

Cue thunder, lightning, anger, fear. Pickard skillfully moves back and forth from that first summer to the present. If Billy Crosby is truly innocent, who shot good-hearted Hugh-Jay and made off with Laurie? Her body has never been found, only a bloodied sundress in an abandoned pick-up. As Jody searches for the truth, she (and readers) gradually become aware of several dark secrets in the Linder family’s past.

Pickard creates credible. complex characters, and the plot propels the action forward. Wary readers will spot the villain of the piece (too many red herrings for my taste) but the resolution rings true. Pickard also uses one of Kansas’ most striking geographic features — the towering Monument Rocks created by ice-age glaciers — to excellent effect. She calls them the Testament Rocks and moves them to a fictional but fully authentic location.

If The Scent of Rain and Lightning has the impact of a summer storm, then Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places comes on like a winter blizzard, chilling to the bone. Another gripping tale of  murder in Kansas, with overtones of  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it came out last year and is now available in paperback.

Narrator Libby Day was seven when she crawled out of a window of a rundown farmhouse and hid in the woods, thus becoming the sole survivor of “The Satanic Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Little Libby’s testimony helped send her fifteen-year-old brother Ben to prison for the bloody murders of her mother and two older sisters in the mid-1980s. Now, a quarter century later, Libby’s an emotionally stunted and bitter woman in her early 30s wondering how she’s going to get by now that the financial kindness of strangers has finally run out.

Enter some new strangers — the very strange members of the Murder Club, who are obssessed with famous crimes. They’ll pay Libby to get in touch with people from her past — her no-good father Runner, her long-estranged aunt Diane, even Ben in prison, and his supposedly devil-worshiping, dope-smoking friends from long ago if she can find them.

Flynn’s compelling story shifts easily from Libby’s present to the events leading up to the murders told from various family members’ perspectives. But her take-no-prisoners, unflinching narrative can be as hard to read as it is to put down. Failing farms, boarded-up storefronts, seamy strip clubs, a homeless camp on a toxic waste dump, abandoned grain silos.  

Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, featured a character scarred by cutting. She slices even deeper in Dark Places. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Open Book: I bought my copies of Nancy Pickard’s The Scent of Rain and Lightning (Random House) and Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (Crown).

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