Missing May is a 1992 American middle grade novel by Cynthia Rylant. This is one of Rylant’s best-loved works, and won the Newbery in 1993. It is about grief and pulling oneself out, realising that life goes on even after great loss.
After the death of the beloved aunt who has raised her, twelve-year-old Summer and her Uncle Ob leave their West Virginia trailer in search of the strength to go on living.
Missing May is short, at 89 pages. Part one details the state of grieving, and part two is the journey out.
Missing May Part One: Still As Night
The first person narrator seems a lot older as she writes about the time her mother died and she went to live with her aunt and uncle. She can’t be all that much older though, because she talks about growing up with Garfield. Garfield is only 40 years old this year, and Missing May was published in 1992. In fact, the narrator is not a lot older — she is a lot wiser.
Uncle Ob makes whirligigs, and these whirligigs represent all sorts of things, like storms or heaven. This marks him out as a bit of an eccentric. I read him as an adult autistic man. He may get sensory pleasure from looking at the whirligigs.
Another story (film) in which a motherly figure dies suddenly, leaving the young newcomer alone with an eccentric man is the New Zealand production Hunt For The Wilderpeople, itself based on a classic novel. This particular character duo allows both to undergo a character arc, and the eccentric, bereft man will learn to come out of his own grief with the assistance of the young person. The young person will in turn learn some profound life lessons from the older eccentric man.
That’s what I’m expecting from this novel after two pages. After reading the whole story, I feel Summer is more of a viewpoint character than the star of her own story. She seems more in tune with her uncle’s feelings than she is with her own.
Summer has come from Ohio to a trailer house located in Deep Water, Fayette County, which is in West Virginia. Cynthia Rylant herself grew up in a small town in West Virginia. In her Newbery acceptance speech Rylant says that she was brought up by her grandparents for several years at a place called Cool Ridge, not in a trailer house but in a small house, with a garden much like Aunt May’s.
We don’t learn until the end of the chapter that she is six years old when she moves. This immediately puts me in mind of Lois Lowry’s The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street. Similarities so far:
- A six year old girl who has moved from one place in America to another
- To live with distant relatives
- An opening chapter which is written in a nostalgic tone, looking back on a time long, long ago (though this must have been the 1980s).
- We don’t yet know her name, giving this character a universal feel.
Food is important to the narrator, and in children’s stories generally. At the age of six, Summer is impressed at the groceries in her aunt and uncle’s trailer house. As an adult I recognise this as cheap processed food with little nutritional value, but I also recognise the honey inside the plastic bear, which was popular in the late eighties, early nineties. This noticing marks her out as a neglected child who wasn’t fed properly.
Children are often compared to mice, who are equally small and at the mercy of larger creatures:
Every house I had ever lived in was so particular about its food, and especially when the food involved me. 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.
This is Summer’s weakness. In other respects, Summer is ‘The Every Child’. Like any child, she needs to learn to move on after great loss.
When Summer describes the vegetable garden where her aunt died, she is also describing her aunt. The garden was practical.
‘In place of roses it was full of thick pole beans and hard green cabbages and strong carrots.’
This is a good example of a character intertwined with setting.
Ob is described as an Ichabod Crane character, which I understood from the context is a scarecrow, though I had to look him up.
The point of view changes in this chapter. Though written by an extradiegetic, autodiegetic narrator, she leaves little psychic distance between herself writing and herself at the time. ‘Now I am twelve…’
‘I think Ob’s going to die, truly die, if I can’t find a way to mend his sorry, broken heart.’
It is clear that Summer feels responsible for her great uncle’s mental health, which reminds me of Marcus in About A Boy.
I read Cletus as an autistic boy, with his narrow interests and unusual collections. The name Cletus is so heavily associated with hillbillies that I didn’t even realise real people were called that. (Though this Cletus is fictional, it’s a realistic story.) Perhaps I get this from the Simpsons character, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. TV Tropes also has a page of names which are generally thought to make fun of Southerners and Hillbillies.
Summer looks down on Cletus — not in an obvious way, but you can tell from the way she describes him. When we see more of Cletus as readers, we realise he’s not as compromised as Summer first made him out to be. This is Summer’s moral weakness in a nutshell: poor that she is herself, she looks down on Cletus.
I’m reminded of Deliverance, and the damage that book (and film) did to the Appalachian community where it was set. If Cynthia Rylant had not come from West Virginia herself, she may not have gotten away with populating her small West Virginian town with a Cletus character, but I write in 2018, at the beginning of the #ownvoices movement. The difference is, Cletus is revealed to be a sympathetic, endearing character with parents who care for him despite coming from a poor home.
Cletus is the character trope of the mentally challenged kid who has supernatural insight because of it.
Summer is a bit more sceptical of Cletus channeling Aunt May than Uncle Ob is. The reader is therefore encouraged to be sceptical, too.
In the middle of winter Ob takes an ‘afterlife antenna’ into the garden hoping to talk to Aunt May. Cletus talks sagely to Summer, making me revise my initial impressions of him – perhaps this guy is just eccentric. Cletus tells Summer that voices are trying to talk to her but she just isn’t listening.
Summer isn’t impressed by this. I wonder if by the end of the story Summer has learnt to believe in the supernatural, because if so, I ain’t here for that.
Missing May Part Two: Set Free
Summer knows Ob is falling into some kind of depression when he sleeps in and when he appears at the breakfast table in his pyjamas.
She alludes to The Wizard of Oz. That afternoon Cletus turns up with his suitcase and they finally get ‘some directions to Oz’. An allusion to The Wizard of Oz can mean pretty much anything. I’ve noticed that readers bring their own interpretations to that story, pretty much like no other. It’s the inverse of Winnie-the-Pooh, in which it’s almost impossible to come up with symbolic theories and deeper meanings.
Cletus has cut out an advertisement for some church in Putnam which promises to put people in touch with dead loved ones. Summer disapproves, but Ob is all for it. Summer feels like one of the three wise men, off on a journey looking for a star in the sky.
Ob and Summer visit Cletus at his home where Summer immediately realises he is loved. He’s not ashamed of his home at all – he’s ashamed of the way Summer treats him. Ob is surprisingly wily, not letting on to the parents the reason for their visit to Putnam.
The three travellers think of the city as another world. Cletus starts to get nervous because he’s never been to the city before. This adds to my theory that he is autistic.
When they reach her house, they learn the bat lady has passed on. Cletus takes this literally and asks, “Passed on where?”
When the ‘Chipmunk man’ who answered the door explains that the bats have been set free, just like her, I understand the symbolism of the bats. In a previous chapter Summer muses about how some people are scared of bats and other people aren’t. She concludes we’re taught to be scared of things. The bats symbolise death itself, in which some people are taught to accept it and others are terrified, with others somewhere in the middle.
Disappointed, Ob turns the buggy for home, but he changes his mind and turns back round. He’s decided to go on a journey anyway. In a traditional story with a linear, mythic structure, a journey of some kind is necessary before a character has a self-realisation.
Note there has been no big battle scene. This is a feminine myth, where the battle takes place inside Summer’s head.
In the city it is clear that Ob has decided to start living more fully.
The second half is some kind of letter or remembered story from Aunt May. It exists without explanation, so it could even be imagined by Summer – is this something May told Summer, or something Summer knows May would say, had she the chance? The letter is clear that May is a fatalist – she feels Summer was meant to be hers all along and it was a matter of waiting for the right time. There is a fairytale feeling to this. I am reminded of Thumbelina, in which an old woman is gifted a little girl, after much longing for a girl of her own.
In the morning the daffodils look brighter and the bacon and eggs taste better. Ob decides to start making whirligigs again and he fills May’s dead garden with them as a kind of memorial to her. New equilibrium: He has emerged from the darkest part of his grief and things will be better from now on.
Summer remains her sceptical self. She hasn’t learnt at any point not to step back from an adult’s grief, which makes her different from Marcus in About A Boy. Instead, she had to wait for Ob to get better before she herself could feel better.