Sunday, March 20, 2011

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

What is it about the loss of life that leaves us paralyzed?  We can’t think… we can’t feel… we can’t function… Until one day, our grief is transformed into acceptance. 
Missing May, a Newberry Medal Award Winner, by Cynthia Rylant, is a touching story that will make the reader think and reflect upon the characters and setting as if they were a part of their own life. This story deals with the struggles within characters about love, abandonment, grief, and acceptance. 
Rylant tells this story in first person narrative, revealing the intense thoughts and feelings of the grieving 12 year old protagonist, Summer.  Summer’s mother had passed away when she was just six years old.  Summer became an orphan that was passed from house to house amongst the Aunts and Uncles and she knew that no one really wanted to care for her.  She was a burden until she met Uncle Ob and Aunt May.  “Back in Ohio, where I’d been treated like a homework assignment somebody always having to do, eating was never a joy of any kind.  Every house I had ever lived in was so particular about its food, and especially when the food involved me.  There’s no good way to explain this.  But I felt like one of those little mice who has to figure out the right button to push before its food will drop down into the cup.  Caged and begging.  That’s how I felt sometimes.”  However, the first night in Virginia with her Uncle Ob and Aunt May, Summer “was as close to paradise” as she had ever come in her life.
Unfortunately for Ob and Summer, May passed away while working in her garden.  Summer and Ob are having a difficult time dealing with the loss of May.  Then Uncle Ob reveals to Summer that “May was, is, right here with us.”  Summer is not sure what to make of Uncle Ob’s statement.  The three of them at one time were a strong family unit.  Now, with May gone, Summer is feeling the pressure.  She has already lost her biological mother, now she has lost her Aunt who became her second mother, and currently she feels she is about to lose Ob.  “But we’re not strong anymore.  And I think Ob’s going to die, truly die, if I can’t figure out a way to mend his sorry broken heart.  And if Ob does go, goes off to be with May, then it’ll be just me and the whirligigs left.  And all of us still as night, praying for wings, real wings so we can fly away.”
Over time Ob loses hope that he will be able to feel May’s presence again.  Then, a boy from the neighborhood, Cletus, gives Ob a glimpse of hope once more.  He describes his out of body experience as he was drowning in the river.  He tells Ob that he saw a light ahead of him and that he was reaching out toward it until he heard a voice that told him to go back home.  Cletus was becoming everything that Summer and Ob had needed from the undertaker, preacher and relatives. “He became the perfect consoler.”  Cletus suggests that they travel to Putnam County to visit a Spiritualist at the Spiritualist Church of Glen Meadows.  Ob began to have the will to get out of bed again as he was chasing after some hope. 
Uncle Ob, Summer, and Cletus decide to go to the church to meet the spiritualist only to learn that she had passed away months prior.  “Then the door that had held so much hope was closed and we were back on our own again.”
So, how is Uncle Ob able to transform his grief?  Why does he long for living again?  How do moments in time come back to us and make us feel connected to those that have gone on to the afterlife? 
As Summer returned from the trip, she whispered to Uncle Ob, “It’s been so hard missing May.”  And Ob said, “She’s still here, honey.  People don’t ever leave us for good.”
Are there really spirited messages that connect us to another life? Do they really bring us consolation?  Or is it our mind helping us cope and deal with the loss that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to deal with?
Rylant’s use of literary devices such as flashbacks and foreshadowing really layer this story to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation.  I am connected to these characters so much so, that as I was driving home from school one day, I saw a large bird that landed on a street sign. It reminded me of an owl and it immediately took me back to the story.  The symbolism that owl had; May visiting Summer, reminding her that she was still with her. 
The whirligigs that were Fire and Love and Dreams and Death.  Even one called May.  In the beginning of the story these were all in the house.  In the end, they are in May’s garden and the wind set them free.  Just as Uncle Ob and May are now free of the grief they have been holding onto for so long. 
Rylant’s use of descriptive language really made me feel like I was there.  I was able to use many of my senses as she described events.  Throughout the story I couldn’t help but feel connected to all of the characters.  They were so well described and developed, they were real!    I also started to connect the author to part of the story.   As Cletus continues to imply that Summer is a writer, I was connecting Rylant to the story. 
This book certainly portrays the realities of life and provides an opportunity for others to see the world from another perspective.  It also informs children that they are not alone with the feelings that are experienced in this text and that there is hope to move forward in the grieving process.


  1. Great review. I almost felt I was getting another piece of the story by reading your summary. Very touching book! Your quotes were right on the money, as well.

  2. I agree with Amy--you really did a nice job of incorporating all of the elements of the story into your review. I agree that Rylant's use of flashbacks and foreshadowing add a deeper layer to the story and help the reader connect with the characters.