When the Pandemic Came to Town by Clare Vanderpool
So here we are. Hunkered down. Social distancing. Sheltering in place. What now?
Many of us have turned to books. Reading is kind of like sheltering in place. It’s something we do mostly alone, but something we are also doing in common. We come to our books from different places. A lunch break. A baby’s nap. The middle seat on an airplane. Or these days, from our shelter-in-place place. We enter the story from our unique perspective and circumstance.
But whatever our starting point, we have similar hopes and expectations going in—to be taken on a journey, to encounter a world and an experience outside of our own. I had similar hopes a while back when writing my first book, Moon Over Manifest. It is the story of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Abilene Tucker leaves her life on the road and sets out on a train to the small town of Manifest, Kansas. As an aspiring writer, I accompanied her on this journey into the unknown. It was a scary endeavor. Would we find our way? Would it turn out all right?
Moon Over Manifest is a back-and-forth story set in two time periods so long ago that they must be very different from our own. 1936—the Great Depression. Staggering unemployment. Agricultural unsustainability. The diaspora of families and communities. And 1918—political upheaval. War. Immigration. Fear of the other. Discrimination. And disease. A pandemic that swept the globe, leaving death and devastation in its wake.
Maybe not so different after all.
Manifest is a mining town made up of immigrants, bootleggers, gossips, and grifters. A preacher, a diviner, a nun, and a reporter-about-town. Saints and sinners, all of them. Manifest was a small community already struggling with all the big issues of its time when a pandemic arrived.
My story is starting to sound like one ripped from the headlines. Right down to the town quarantine. They hunkered down. Kept their distance. Created a cure-all elixir that actually worked. At least at first.
The town of Manifest has its origins in the real town of Frontenac, Kansas, where my maternal grandparents grew up. My grandmother was just shy of her eighteenth birthday when the flu hit. She was the only one in her family to survive. She shared the story with her daughter. And my mom told it to me. And that story became part of my story.
So what happened to the citizens of Manifest? Did they make it through? Did they come out all right? And let’s be honest. What we’re really asking is: How will this all turn out for us? Because that’s what we hope for in the stories we read. Not only to be transported outside of our own experience, but to recognize ourselves in the drama. To see our own humanity right there on the page, in all its bruised and beautiful, clumsy and grace-filled glory.
Our current situation is like being in a story—a time and place outside of our own experience. We all enter from different starting points of culture, place, family, community. We might come to it from an inner place of distraction, estrangement, isolation, loneliness. But once we are in this particular story, we find that paradox of being alone together. They say there is strength in numbers. There is also comfort and companionship. Solidarity, even.
All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this present-day pandemic, the beginning was rough and terrible and scary. Now we’re in the middle. The slog. The grind. The dark. So where will come out, and who will we be on the other side?
Many are predicting that our world, and we as people, will be forever changed by this pandemic. Strangely, that seemingly gloomy prediction can provide the thing we need most: hope. After all, this would be an awful lot to go through to come out the other side unchanged.
What can we learn from the good citizens of Manifest, who lived this experience before us? What would they tell us? I’ve read the book, and know them to be humble people who are reluctant to dole out advice. I think they would share only what they learned from their own town quarantine:
Welcome the stranger.
Be a good neighbor.
Make something from scratch.
Be frugal so as to be generous with others.
Say what needs saying.
Meet, greet, invite.
Eat, talk, sing.
Laugh, cry, console.
Let go of what doesn’t matter and hold on to what does.
Do all of these with others more often than alone.
And most importantly, remember the story. Tell it to your kids and grandkids.
“Back in the day, we had a pandemic. It was rough and terrible and scary. And it changed us.”
Clare Vanderpool is the author of the Newbery Award-winning Moon Over Manifest and Navigating Early, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book and a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Wichita, Kansas with her family.