Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1483

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.

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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, Summer realizes she was the reason why she had never before been invited over. She had thought the problem had to be with Cletus's parents: "Now, meeting these sweet people, I knew right away it wasn't them Cletus was ashamed of. It was me. Ashamed of me and my indifference to him, afraid to let his parents see the way I barely tolerated their strange son. Ashamed of the difference between their adoration of him and my disgust." This kind of self-knowledge is hard to come by, and in Summer's case it makes her a little more accepting of others—a little more like Ob and May, whose love for her was unconditional.

Missing May is about grieving for May, so even though May is already dead at the start of the novella, she and her personality appear often, mostly through Summer's memories of her. May seems too good to be true, a saint, but one should note that she is described by a girl who went from a life without hope to a life of day-to-day happiness because of May generous spirit. The name May is symbolic of her personality, just as the garden is. May is a nurturer; she helps Ob and Summer to grow. In this sense, the name Summer is also symbolic; May is late spring, when plants are growing, but Summer is when those plants bear fruit. The intelligent and strong girl Summer has become is partly the result of May's care; in the late spring of Summer's childhood, May took her in and cared for her, like tending a garden, and in the early summer of her adolescence, Summer is revealing some of results of May's love. She is rapidly maturing and has become capable of giving a great deal of love to others.

Thus, Summer should be forgiven for idealizing May. Plainly, there are many good reasons for missing her. Grief is the principal theme of Missing May; neither Ob nor Summer is good at expressing the grief he or she feels, but each feels a terrible sense of loss. In each case, the response is somewhat selfish. Ob refuses to let May go; he focuses so much on wanting her back that he neglects Summer's emotional needs. Indeed, his deep depression frightens her; when he stays in his pajamas all day, he seems to have given up on life and to be ready to end it. On the other hand, Summer is more willing to let go of May. Her grief emphasizes her fear of being alone and unloved; she remembers how miserable her life was before May and Ob took her in. Further, Summer grieves for a woman who made her feel valued—the "best" little girl—and this grief is compounded by grieving for Ob. Summer wants Ob to feel better; he has given her much affection, but she does not know how to ease his pain. Therefore, Summer is caught in a double bind: she misses May and she hurts for Ob.

The grieving of Ob and Summer is worked out during the novella. This gives the book a universal appeal, since grief is an emotion nearly everyone shares at one time or another. It is done with sensitivity and realism, making the book one that is likely to appeal to grownups as well as young adults. Ob's grieving works from outright denial—he insists that May is in the trailer—to a search to recover his loss—the efforts to contact May's spirit—to eventual acceptance of the responsibilities he bears in this life; he cannot grieve forever because people—especially Summer—need him, need his attention, need his care, and need his love. Summer's own grief is complicated. May was a wonderful mother to her, but Summer cannot help but feel abandoned, especially when she takes on the burden of Ob's grief. How can she cope with an old man who wants to die? She finds some comfort in her belief in angels; May, too, had lost her parents when she was a child, but she told Summer that their spirits watched over her until she married Ob, when their help was no longer needed. So Summer is perfectly willing to accept the idea that May's spirit lives on; this notion provides comfort to her, but not to Ob, who is obsessed with recapturing May. By the novella's end, Summer has not yet fully worked through her grief, but her outlook is hopeful. Ob has accepted his new responsibilities, Summer has gained new insight into herself, and she has matured a bit because of her dealing with her grief. She is a little more open, accepting, and loving at the end—a little more like the best qualities of May. There are no easy answers to grieving in Missing May; it is presented as a process that takes time, the emotional support of others, and the recognition that one has a life one must get on with and live.

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