Sudden deaths can have all sorts of outcomes in children's literature. In a fairy tale, sudden death means an orphan tormented by an evil stepparent; in a fantasy story, it's often reversed by magic; and in books like Missing May, it's a very tangible reality that can't be explained away and will probably not end in the deceased coming back.
Probably. For most of the novel, Uncle Ob holds out hope for Aunt May's return. 12-year-old Summer (orphaned at six, and taken in by May and Ob) is more skeptical, but she wants something to happen or she knows Ob himself isn't long for this world. Ever since May died while gardening, Ob has lost his sense of purpose, his joy, and even his health has rapidly deteriorated.
Summer isn't thrilled that Ob's one source of vitality has become the eccentric and possibly insane Cletus, who eggs on Ob's belief that May's ghost may be haunting the old trailer he and Summer still live in. But as the story progresses, Summer begins to find out more about Ob, about May, about Cletus, and about herself.
Cynthia Rylant's depiction of grief is very realistic. Ob and Summer get angry, resent the fact that they have to behave a certain way at funerals and memorials, almost abandon all hope, wander around lost, grasp for hope in absurd places, and ultimately mourn with a good old-fashioned cry. This little book covers the whole gamut of raw and tender post-loss emotions.
It also offers a lot of really bad solutions to grief. Most of them are shown to be bad by the author, or at least silly, such as the trip Ob, Summer and Cletus take to a spiritualist church to try to contact May. But where Rylant ultimately ends up is just as empty—though there's much talk about God and his plans, there's no mention of turning to him for comfort in a time of grief.
For all the talk of God, in fact, it's really loved ones that serve as God in the context of this story. God doesn't comfort us in times of sorrow, Rylant intimates, but somehow having the person nearby in spirit does. This is no real comfort, though, and is really no more than an empty mind-trick to play on ourselves to dull the pang of death.
Missing May is very well written, realistic, and has some pretty humorous moments (most of them involving Cletus). The depiction of sorrow and grief in the face of definitive loss is also clearly presented. Yet ultimately the book fails in its mission of helping readers deal with or understand that grief, by offering empty answers that are really no answers at all.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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