Wendy's Reviews > May B.

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
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May 11, 2012

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bookshelves: 2012-award-possibilities
Read in May, 2012

This somewhat intriguing book is one that invites more discussion and thought than it might first appear. It's a verse novel, which hardly anyone likes, but I don't think this one will get quite as much of the now-cliche complaints that "there's no reason for this to be in verse" and "just a regular story chopped up funny". The verse novel effect results here in a story that takes place entirely in the narrator's head, which turns out to be pretty effective.

I found the first third pretty cliched and a little dull, as we meet May's family (typical taciturn pioneer parents and pesky brother who gets to have all the fun) and see her move out to a stranger's shanty as a servant/companion. May doesn't strike me as very interesting here; I was much more interested in and sympathetic to the teenage bride whose house she's living in, who we never hear much about--even before the book got around to hinting at a little sympathy for her. May is only away from her family for a few months, and the life is similar to what she knows; the teenage bride signed her life away to a stranger that she's married to, not just working for. And now she has to share that tiny home with a girl who's only a little younger but much more capable at prairie housekeeping than she is.

But the last two thirds of the book delve deeply into depression, loneliness, and survival, in a way that's much more compelling and original than the first part of the book. The survival theme is one that seems to be explored more often with men and boys--I felt strong echoes, intentional or not, with parts of Into the Wild (not the philosophy, the day-to-day feelings), and I thought also of Hatchet, The Sign of the Beaver, and the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. And Ayla in the first two Clan of the Cave Bear books. The situation isn't as dire as any of those, but the writing convinces the reader that that doesn't matter to the internal self that is stranded alone.

The dyslexia aspect of the story didn't really strike me as "too much"--actually, without it, the book would be too short--but I never did believe that it would be quite so important to this character. The author is exploring the idea of what it might have been like to have a learning disability before help would have been available; my guess is that most kids in this situation who couldn't learn to read wouldn't have bothered much with trying, since there were so many other more useful skills they could do and were needed to do. If she belonged to a highly educated family, that might have been different.

I don't think this is Newbery material, but I do think there are kids who will really like it, especially kids who have some background in pioneer stories (so the setting and values aren't completely foreign) but haven't read all twenty million pioneer stories published over the last seventy years, like some of us jaded adults.
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