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`MISSING MAY' TEACHES HOW TO SAY GOODBYE WHEN DEATH COMES

MISSING MAY by Cynthia Rylant. 1992. 96 pages. Orchard/Richard Jackson. $12.95.

Death has been handled in many ways in children's literature: children burying a dead bird, listing the attributes of a dead person or going through the stages of grief. Young protagonists learn the meaning of loss through these books, and if the theme is handled without didacticism, it will offer some lesson, an insight, perhaps, to the cycle called life, which is portrayed as the flip side of death.When Ob and May, two simple and plain country folks, see 6-year-old Summer being passed among relatives after her mother's death, they take her home with them. Home is only a decrepit trailer, but to Summer it is paradise. "These two old people started from the moment we pulled up . . . to turn this rusty, falling-down place into a house just meant for a child. May started talking about where they'd hang the swing . . . and Ob was designing a tree house in his head." May and Ob's idea of a meal was Oreos, SpaghettiOs and chocolate milk. "I was 6 years old and I had come home."

May dies unexpectedly six years later, and Ob goes into depression and claims he can't go on. He nearly gives up until Summer and her friend, Cletus, urge him to seek May through a spiritualist/reverend.

When they reach Glen Meadows, the reverend has also died. For a time the children think Ob will revert to depression, but instead he attacks the problem for one reason - to be available for Summer.

In a powerful scene they return to realize something about May; they have not truly grieved her death. "All Ob and me wanted to do when we lost May was hold on to each other and wail in that trailer for days and days. But we never got the chance . . . there are certain ways people expect you to grieve . . . we had to talk business with the funeral parlor, religion with the preacher, and make small talk with dozens of relatives."

Finally, by walking through May's garden there was still room for her, and they cried and felt her death as reality. "I knew as I had never known before that I would never, ever see May on this earth again."

True, "Missing May" is a book about death, but the reality of living is the real issue here. Rylant never preaches it. She allows the magnificently crafted characters to lead us to understand that May believed people were angels before they were ever people and will return to that role.

When the question is asked by Summer: "What is it that makes a person want to stay here on this earth anyway, and go on suffering the most awful pain just for the sake of getting to stay?" She learns through her memories of May and Ob's love that "I used to think it was because people fear death. But now I think it is because people can't bear to say goodbye."

Rylant's use of metaphor - the appearance of an owl - and her delightful descriptions of the hand-carved whirligigs make "Missing May" rich in settings that support the colloquialisms of the West Virginia that the author knows so well.

My prediction is that "Missing May" will be an honor selection of the 1992 Newbery Award, if not the medal itself.