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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

The major subject of Missing May is the death of a loved one and its impact on the survivors—their struggle to come to grips with the loss and to deal with their feelings of hopelessness so that they can find new meaning in life. Still torn by the recent loss of her beloved Aunt May, twelve-year-old Summer is desperately afraid that she will now lose her adored Uncle Ob, who continues to pine for May and is slowly losing interest in living. It is only when both Ob and Summer realize that neither can take May’s place for the other that they can begin to rebuild their lives without her. Throughout the novel, one sees people handling the deaths of loved ones: the death of Summer’s young mother, the death of May’s parents when May was only a child, and May’s untimely death.

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Cynthia Rylant subtly interweaves into the plot reflections on the importance of family and friendship in an individual’s development. Although she lives with relatives, Summer has no real family until May and Ob take her in and surround her with their love. She never realizes that they are poor because of the richness of their life together. It is out of May and Ob’s deep desire for a child of their own that they recognize Summer’s need and decide to share their life with her. After May’s death, Ob and Summer keep their family intact by trying to provide for each other as May once did for them.

Even though Summer realizes that the love and support of May and Ob transformed her life, she has not yet learned to step outside her safe cocoon to connect with others. Although Summer rides the school bus with Cletus Underwood, she does not really know him, but she views negatively his obsession with collecting things. While the other kids at school save their potato chip bags and wrapping paper for Cletus, Summer merely watches with disgust. When Ob befriends Cletus and the boy begins visiting the trailer regularly, sharing his latest passion for pictures, Summer reluctantly learns to tolerate him. Even though she is grudgingly grateful to Cletus for helping Ob through the depressing Christmas season after May’s death, Summer still refuses to accept him as a friend. It is only after meeting Cletus’ elderly parents and feeling his unquestioning reliance on their support and love for him that Summer begins to see Cletus as a unique individual. Summer is finally able to embark on the two-way road to friendship. By doing so, she becomes closer to the spirit of May, who was able to understand people and “let them be whatever way they needed to be.”

Through the developing relationship with Cletus, Summer matures and realizes that a “family” consists of those individuals who love, support, and care about a person and that true friendship begins with acceptance and valuing others for the unique gifts that they offer.

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