The narrator of Missing May is Summer, a girl who has had a difficult life. She does not remember her parents, although she believes her mother must have loved her, "otherwise, how could I even recognize love when I saw it that night between Ob and May?" She was passed around from relative to relative, never receiving much care or love, until she was about six years old; then May and Ob took her in. She is understandably very insecure, and for much of Missing May, she is afraid that she will once again be unloved and a burden to her relatives. This fear creates much of the tension of the book; it is well motivated, with Ob's self-destructive behavior giving it urgency. On the other hand, Summer is not given to self-pity; her narrative never whines, instead maintaining a matter-of-fact tone that helps make Summer an attractive and interesting character.
Ob is an elderly man who had a passionately loving marriage with May. Her acceptance of him and his eccentricities was an important part of his life. With May's death seems to come a host of insecurities for Ob, and he is not sure that he can live without her. Summer wishes she could replace May for Ob, but sensibly realizes that she could never be May. Most of the events of the novella are motivated by Ob's obsession with contacting the spirit of his dead wife, and he even claims that she visited him at the trailer a couple of times after her death. His grief is eased somewhat by Summer's presence, and Cletus's open-minded acceptance of Ob provides some of the support May used to provide.
The turning point of Missing May occurs when Ob turns his car around and heads for the West Virginia State Capitol, switching his focus from death to life. Summer's hope that she can provide Ob with a reason to live is partly realized at this moment; Ob takes on the role of nurturing parent. Grief is a difficult and tricky subject. Some people succumb to it and even actually die from it. Most people cope with it, perhaps by bottling it inside themselves, perhaps by denying it, or perhaps by letting it out and having it run its course. Ob's grief is psychologically sound: his beloved wife of many years has passed away and he simply does not want to let her go. Eventually, he must choose to hang on to her so hard that he dies too, or he must choose to face a future without her. On the drive home, he makes his choice—he chooses Summer, Cletus, and whirligigs. The shift in his grieving is sudden, but that is often how grieving works; one either grieves forever or one moves on with life.
Cletus is a strange youngster. The son of elderly (old at least from Summer's young perspective) parents, he is a chronic collector and already eccentric enough to be a match for Ob. He helps to distract Ob and Summer from their grief. He shares his picture collection with Ob, and the two of them make up stories for the figures depicted in the pictures. They also put together a big jigsaw puzzle, helping Ob get through the Christmas season without May. Summer is hurt somewhat by Ob's trust of Cletus. Ob shares the news that May's spirit has visited him a second time, while he was with Cletus, thus hurting Summer's feelings. She had hoped he would be able to share himself with her. On the other hand, Cletus serves to distract her from her own poorly disguised grief. She misses May and May's unconditional love terribly, but Cletus's annoying habits sometimes take Summer's mind off of her disheartening problems. Further, her relationship with Cletus spurs her to grow more mature and sensitive to the feelings of others. When visiting Cletus's home for the first time,...
(The entire section is 1483 words.)