'May' a touching story of loss and love

BOOKS FOR KIDS

February 06, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

It has been six months since May's death, and the two people she loved the most are lost.

Ob, her husband, isn't fighting the depression that grows darker every day. Summer, their 12-year-old niece, hasn't had time to mourn. She is too busy struggling to keep from losing Ob, too.

"I didn't know how to keep him tied to me," she says. "Already he was starting to live among the dead."

Summer is the narrator of "Missing May," by Cynthia Rylant (Orchard Books, $12.95, ages 11 and up). It has just won the 1993 Newbery Medal as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Is it the best children's book of the past year? I would rank it in the top 10. Maybe it won because coping with loss is a trendy topic in the industry. I'd like to think it won because giving voice to the whispers of the heart is one of the most vital things a story can do.

From the beginning, the reader trusts Summer's instincts. Her mother died when she was a baby, and Summer says:

"She must have known she wasn't going to live and she must have held me longer than any other mother might, so I'd have enough love in me to know what love was when I saw it or felt it again."

Six years passed before she felt it again. Bouncing from one relative to the next, Summer finally finds a home with elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ob, who live in a trailer in Deep Water, W.Va.

The book opens with May's death, when Summer is 12. Ms. Rylant deftly leads readers back in time throughout the book, confirming the depth of Summer's and Ob's grief by showing the depth of May's love while she was alive.

Ob and Summer had been shuffled through the funeral routine by preachers, undertakers and distant relatives. "We never really got the chance to howl and pull our hair out," she says. "People wanted us to grieve proper."

Then Ob thinks that May's spirit is trying to return to him. He and Summer and Cletus -- an odd but endearing boy from Summer's class at school -- stand out in May's garden, where Ob tries to communicate with the spirit world by recalling his sweetest moments with May.

Instead of mentioning how she secretly saved for three years to buy him a Sears plane saw, Ob talks of how "she had rubbed down his ailing knee with Ben-Gay every single night, not missing a one, so he might be able to stand on that leg when he got out of bed the next morning."

But when May's spirit fails to return, Ob falls deeper into despair. Cletus finds an old newspaper clipping advertising a spiritualist -- The Reverend Miriam B. Conklin, Small Medium at Large -- in a town three hours away from Deep Water.

Against her better judgment, Summer agrees to make the trip with Cletus and Ob. Then, just when the quest appears to end in failure, Ob finds a private peace. And that allows Summer to tend to her own broken heart. She cries and cries until "finally my body was emptied of those tears and I was no more burdened."

Ms. Rylant's native Appalachia has been the source for some of her other acclaimed work. She wrote two picture books that were Caldecott Honor Books: "When I Was Young in the Mountains," illustrated by Diane Goode, and "The Relatives Came," illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Barry Moser illustrated "Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds," which won a 1991 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for non-fiction.

She has three American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults awards -- two for poetry, "Soda Jerk" and "Waiting to Waltz: A Childhood" -- and one for her short story collection, "A Couple of Kooks and Other Stories about Love." One novel, "A Fine White Dust," is a Newbery Honor Book.

And now she has the Newbery Medal. "Missing May" might not find a place among the classics, but its comforting honesty makes it a winner.

Here is May talking to Summer in a dream: "I used to wonder why God gave you to us so late in life. Why we had to be old before we could have you. I was almost as big as a house and full of diabetes. And Ob an old arthritic skeleton of a man.

"My guess is that the Lord . . . let us get old so we'd have plenty of cause to need you and you'd feel free to need us right back. We wanted a family so bad, all of us. And we just grabbed onto each other and made us one. Simple as that."

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