Form and Content

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As Missing May opens, twelve-year-old Summer recounts the events leading to her adoption by Aunt May and Uncle Ob: the death of her mother and being passed from house to house among her relatives in Ohio. Summer feels unwanted, “caged and begging,” until May and Ob visit from West Virginia when Summer is six years old and recognize her yearning to be loved. They return with her to their rundown trailer deep in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, where Summer realizes that she has come home. Although they are poor, May and Ob give Summer what she needs most: love, comfort, and acceptance.

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May dies suddenly in her garden, however, when Summer is twelve, and, although Ob continues to love and care for Summer, both are lost without May. Six months later, Ob suddenly “feels” May’s spirit still hovering near them. Desperately wanting to speak once more with May, Ob calls on Cletus Underwood, Summer’s classmate. Because Cletus almost drowned when he was seven, Ob believes that he has a special connection to the spirit world and is a conduit through which May can contact them. When they are unable to communicate with May, Ob quickly falls into a deep depression, for the first time not waking on time to get Summer off to school. He confesses to Summer that he doubts he can continue to go on without May.

Cletus provides an unexpected pathway to salvation for all of them through his collection of pictures. He brings Ob a newspaper clipping about the Reverend Young, a spiritualist pastor who communicates with the dead. The coincidence that she is sometimes called the Bat Lady and that May was fond of bats seems strong evidence to Summer, Ob, and Cletus that they should seek her help in contacting May’s spirit.

Summer and Ob visit the Underwoods’ house to get permission for Cletus to travel with them to visit the Reverend Young. When they arrive, Summer sees Cletus in a new light. Instead of the odd, insecure boy she had known from school, Cletus seems self-assured and comfortable, and Summer realizes it is because of the love and support that his parents give him. She feels ashamed of the disgust that she previously felt for Cletus.

When the three pass through the city of Charleston on their way to visit the spiritualist, Cletus is awed by their proximity to the state capitol, and Ob promises that they will tour the building after they have consulted the medium. Upon discovering, however, that the Reverend Young has died, Ob loses all hope. Summer aches for both of them, knowing that Ob is too depressed to help Cletus realize his dream of visiting the capitol. Ob, however, has a sudden change of heart, turns the car around, and drives back to the capitol building. The three lunch among the legislators in the capitol coffee shop and then tour the capitol, where Cletus is enthralled. They leave Charleston with lighter hearts because of Ob’s renewed sense of purpose.

When they reach home that night, an owl flies over Summer’s head, bringing back poignantly the loss of May. She finally releases the tears that she has been unable to shed. The next morning, the three of them fill May’s empty garden with Ob’s “whirligigs,” finally setting both her spirit and themselves free.


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West Virginia serves as the setting for most of what happens in Missing May. The old trailer home serves as a symbol of contrasts. It represents the low income of the family but it also represents the love that binds May, Ob, and Summer. The contrast serves to emphasize that the love of the household is much more important than its poverty. Ob makes her a sewing set and May maintains a garden that supplies food for the family, and Summer seems to have plenty of fun and to be happy with the food she receives. Underlying the description of the house and its environs is Summer's fear that it all could be taken from her; the emotional support of May and Ob means everything to her.

May's garden serves as a symbol of May's nurturing personality. She was a big, heavy woman, who seemed full of good nature; she accepted people for what they were and brought a motherly kind of love to whatever she did. Her garden is a symbol of what she gave to others. She nourished the spirits of Ob and Summer just as she nourished their bodies with what she grew. When she died in the garden, she died in an act of love, working to grow food for her family. The garden is where Ob goes in an effort to talk with May's spirit, and as the novella progresses, it suffers from lack of attention. The key use of the garden as a symbol comes at the end of the book, when Ob plants his whirligigs in it. This is symbolic of his accepting the role of nurturer for Summer—a role May had filled. Further, it shows that he has given up trying to be May and has accepted the notion that he must go on living as himself. He cannot duplicate May's garden, but he can make some fine whirligigs; he can continue to bring fun and imagination into his life with Summer.

Another important symbol is the West Virginia State Capitol. Ob, Summer, and Cletus had planned to visit it after visiting the medium who would put Ob in touch with May's spirit. To Summer, the capitol is a grand and exciting place; she imagines people doing important work there, and she calls it a "shining castle." When the medium turns out to have been long deceased, Ob seems to give up on living altogether. He just cannot imagine himself surviving without May. On the drive home, he passes the capitol, then abruptly turns the car around and takes Summer and Cletus there. He says, "It's getting on to lunchtime. I figure the governor will be in the coffee shop, watching for somebody interesting to come through the door . . . We sure don't want to disappoint him." They seem to enjoy seeing the museums and other sights. It is as if they were visiting heaven. At a handicraft shop, Ob "looked around the shop like somebody planning out a garden they're about to plant." But he says, "My gigs are needing a place. This ain't it." Later, he plants his 'gigs in May's garden, in the real-life heaven for Summer and him. The West Virginia State Capitol represents hope for the future; May even envisions Cletus someday working in the legislature. When Ob turns his thoughts to it, he shifts his focus from death to life; he shifts from brooding on his grief to thinking about Summer and her needs.

Literary Qualities

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By now it is almost a cliche to note Rylant's simple, elegantly straightforward style. Another cliche is the rationale Rylant provides for Summer being able to write an elegant book: Summer has the talent to become a writer. There are countless young adult books with first-person narrators who are aspiring writers, so that they are able to write the book one is reading. In any case, Summer is an engaging storyteller; her lack of self-pity and hardheaded determination to get on with living enhance her appeal. As for the prose style, it very much what readers expect from Rylant. For example, note this description of Cletus's mother: "Mrs. Underwood looked to be made of dried-out apples. She was small and tight and dry, just like her house, but with a shine that attracted me. She shook my hand, and her thin cool fingers felt like twigs that could be snapped in a minute." The writing, here, is spare and to the point, with bright, clear images. Mrs. Underwood's appearance is deftly tied to that of her house, making it partly an extension of her personality. The metaphor of fingers like twigs seems exactly right, a perfect description.

Missing May is not a tale of action; the events are few and not dramatic like events in an adventure story or a murder mystery. Instead, Missing May is a story of character. The important action takes place within the hearts of Summer, Ob, and Cletus. The interest in the book is in how the characters develop. Do they grow? Do they miss the point of what is happening to them? Do they find hope for their lives? Summer and Ob plainly grow, becoming more than they were at the beginning of the novella. Summer becomes more honest with herself; Ob becomes more responsible. Summer shows herself capable of subtle reasoning and sound understanding of the facts of her life. Further, there is hope for each of the main characters at the end of the novel. It is hard to make deeply felt grief upbeat and positive, and Rylant does not try to; instead, the growth of the characters shows that grief can be coped with—what is lost is forever gone, but life can still be lived well.

Social Sensitivity

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Death can be a touchy subject for many people, particularly for young people, yet it is a subject that frequently appears in modern-day literature for young adults. The idea of death shapes much of Missing May. May herself is already dead when the novella begins. Her husband Ob suffered a spiritual death when she died; much of the novella concerns his effort to reunite with his wife, even though she is dead, and he appears to wish he were dead, too. Summer fears the dying she sees. May and Ob have given her a home when no one else would. May's death takes from her one of the two people on earth who loved her. Ob appears to be following May into death; this would leave Summer once again homeless and dependent on people who care nothing for her. Ob's eventual acceptance of his responsibility to live and to carry on in May's stead is a triumph over death; he chooses life and its responsibilities. Even though death shapes Missing May in important ways, it should not be mistaken for the main subject of the novella. Overcoming grief and loss is the main topic of Missing May.

The way of life of Summer, Ob, and Cletus is likely to seem unusual to many readers who are unfamiliar with rural life in general and life in the southern Appalachian Mountains in particular. In Missing May the people are doers, making the most out of difficult lives. The old, beat-up trailer may not seem appealing to some readers, but its rickety condition is not emphasized. Instead, the focus is on the home; the love Summer finds there is far more important than the shortage of money that the trailer, old automobile, and garden seem to represent. Indeed, if the trailer actually represents love for Summer, then the old automobile represents Ob's affection for his wife, and May's garden is her loving gift to her husband and Summer. The sights Rylant describes are common ones for rural America, even if the characters in Missing May are somewhat more eccentric than most rural Americans are likely to be. What makes the images of West Virginia, from the old trailer to the capitol, special is the freshness of Summer's views of them. Rylant succeeds in making everything seem exciting and new, as if seen through the eyes of a youngster—perhaps as Rylant as a child might have once perceived her West Virginia world.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

Hearne, Betsy. Review. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 45 (March 1992): 192. Hearne says about Missing May, "Strong nuances of despair and hope create a suspense that forcefully replaces action and that will touch readers to tears."

Holtze, Sally Holmes, ed. "Cynthia Rylant." In Sixth Book of Junior Authors & Illustrators. Edited by Sally Holmes Holtze. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1989: 255-256. A short autobiographical essay plus a summary of Rylant's education and career.

Hupp, Marcia. Review. School Library Journal 38 (March 1992): 241. Admires the thoughtfulness of Missing May.

Ray, Karen. Review. New York Times Book Review (October 18, 1992): 48. Admires the characterization of Summer and the book's complexity.

Ruby, Mary K. "Rylant, Cynthia." In Contemporary Authors. Vol. 136. Edited by Susan M. Trotsky. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992: 357-360. Provides a recent biographical sketch.

Telgen, Diane. "Rylant, Cynthia." In Something About the Author. Vol. 76. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994:193-199. The most recent biographical information with comments by the author.

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