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.