Written by Cynthia Rylant
The loss of a loved one is a tragedy that all of us will go through at some point in our lives. Loved ones are taken from us at many different points —sometimes unexpectedly and other times we are given the opportunity to prepare ourselves the best that we can. I often wonder why it seems that some suffer much more loss than others—and much earlier in life than they should. How do young children learn to cope with the loss of a loved one—especially when feeling like the adults in their life need their support?
By the age of twelve, Summer has already suffered from a lot of loss. Since her mother’s death when she was a baby, Summer was passed from one relative to another where she was, “treated like a homework assignment somebody was always having to do.” Finally, when Summer was six years old, she found a family who loved her—a family that needed her. She was taken to live in West Virginia with her Aunt May and Uncle Ob.
Summer finally felt she had come home when she was surrounded by, “Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening Coke bottles and chocolate milk cartons...” She lived a happy, yet simple life, up until the point when her Aunt May died unexpectedly. Summer and Ob’s lives would never be the same as they learned how to grieve and continue to live through their great loss.
Summer suffers in silence as Ob suffers outwardly. She tries to be his strength when he cannot get out of bed in the morning. At the breakfast table, Summer drinks coffee and Ob drinks cocoa—making it clear who takes care of whom. She worries and is saddened by the fact that she is not enough to keep Ob going. She thinks, “I wasn’t enough to bring Ob to life each day. That it wasn’t enough he had me left to still love.” Although she is hurting, she remains strong for Ob, hoping that he will things will go back to the way they were—or as close to the way they were without May being around.
Cletus, a boy from school, helps Ob in particular with his grief. He talks to him with the maturity of an adult and is described by Summer as “...Always living full of hope and confidence.” Though resistant to it at first, Summer and Cletus end up becoming friends as he helps both Ob and Summer through their loss.
In Cynthia Rylant’s, Missing May, we become emotionally attached to Ob and Summer as they learn to cope with their loss. In a short amount of pages, Rylant is able to successfully develop these characters through her use of description. She makes us aware of Summer’s thinking, but leaves us wondering about Ob’s inner-thoughts. By the end of the story, we realize that Summer needed a sign from May that things would be alright. The owl flying over-head was like the spirit of May—telling Summer that it was okay to cry. Suddenly, Ob seems like a pillar of strength, comforting Summer and telling her, “She’s still here, honey. People don’t ever leave us for good.” It becomes apparent that Ob has realized he needs to be strong for Summer and continue to live for her. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs, one that is cooked by Ob for the first time in his life, Cletus, Summer, and Ob set out all of the whirligigs in May’s garden—finally setting them free.