Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cynthia Rylant: Missing May

I just finished Missing May by Cynthia Rylant, which is from the Newbery Medal list (i.e., children's books). I was shocked by this book - I wasn't expecting much because people almost always portray us West Virginians in a negative light, but this was a very touching story. It's about a little girl, Summer, who lost her parents, was passed around from relative to relative in Ohio, until another relative from West Virginia, May, took her in and, despite being poor, gave her a real home. Then, May dies. This is the story of Summer and her uncle, Ob, recovering from the death. I was surprised that Rylant actually did capture the "voice" of southern West Virginia. The setting of Fayette County was highly appropriate. And she did mention Beckley and Raleigh County (where I grew up). She also mentioned our capitol building!


A few states have gold plated their capitol buildings in recent years. Ours was plated with gold at the time of its construction (finished in the 30s) and is five feet higher than the U.S. capitol building. I don't care much for Charleston, but our capitol building is pretty.

My biggest beefs?

She named one of her characters Cletus. The only Cletus I have ever met was a green frog backpack that one of my friends gave me before she moved and it got the name Cletus because we were being stupid and thought it highly appropriate for a bright green frog.

The lack of punctuation kind of sucked, but this was published during a phase of editing where most editors cut most of it out. So it's probably not the author's fault.

"But we're not strong anymore. . . And all of us as still as night, praying for wings, real wings, so we can fly away."

"Maybe that's why Cletus and Ob had such an easy time of getting to be friends. . . Ob appreciated anybody crazier than him."

"Seems once people bring in outsiders who make a career of bereavement - undertakers, preachers - their grieving gets turned into a kind of system, like the way everybody lines up the same way to go in a movie or sits the same way in a doctor's office. All Ob and me wanted to do when we lost May was hold on to each other and wail. . . But we never got the chance because. . . there are certain ways people expect you to grieve. When May died, Ob and me had to talk business with the funeral parlor, religion with the preacher, and make small talk with dozens of relatives and people we'd hardly seen before. We had to let them hug us. We had to see them watching our faces for any sign of a nervous breakdown."

"I was being raised by one person who liked these creatures and another who tolerated them. I had no reason to fear bats, and as I grew and discovered how many people are deathly afraid of them, it made me wonder about fear. Whether it all just starts with the people who raise us."

"Ob always said cussing was like taking a strong drunk of whiskey. It thawed him out and got his engine running again."

". . . Cletus told her that coffee had made me tough, and besides that all writers needed something to see them through those long novels, and better it was coffee than Jim Beam whiskey."

"The capitol building sprawled gray concrete like a regal queen spreading out her petticoats, and it's great dome glittered pure gold in the morning sun. I felt in me an embarrassing sense of pride that she was ours. That we weren't just shut down coal mines and people on welfare like the rest of the country wanted to believe we were."

". . . I prayed for him. . . But I didn't say any prayers for me. I was too afraid to hope for things."

May: "I had me a little girl finally, something I wanted all my life. I'd come to figure the good Lord wasn't ever going to give me one, for reasons of His own. But he was holding me steady all those years, waiting for you to be born, waiting for your poor mama to die, waiting for Ob to see you didn't know how to ask for a glass of a milk."

May: "I used to wonder why God gave you to us late in life. Why we had to be old already before we could have you. . . the Lord wanted us all to be just full of need. . . we wanted a family so bad, all of us. And we just grabbed onto each other and made our own."


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