Book Review: May B.

I’ve said this before (and probably before that as well): i love goodreads.com. I use it in some capacity every day. It’s where I chronicle all of my reading, write reviews, and of course, read reviews. They recently added a smart book recommendation generator as well. If you’re still using Amazon to peruse ratings, switch. Good Reads has so many more, not to mention a friendlier userface for following your friends, favorite reviewers, and authors. That said… I’ve been reviewing books on the site for years (that’s 631 ratings and 436 reviews, all of which you can read right here. So why haven’t I ever reviewed a single title on this ‘ere blog? Good question, internet. Gooood question.

Without further ado, I present the first in an heretofore regular “column”, if you will: May B., a middle grade verse novel by debut author Caroline Starr Rose. Read my review, get psyched, then go buy it when it’s released on January 10th because it’s wonderful.


I’m always a bit skeptical of verse novels. You’d think that my appreciation for books by Sharon Creech would have me convinced by now, but I always pick them up with the same wary question in my mind: “Ooookay, is this actually any good or is this a gimmick?” I think a lot of us approach poetry with, if not fear, then a sense of drudgery. It is going to be too drippy? Will it be too dense? Lured by Christopher Silas Neal‘s beautiful cover illustration and type and interested to read a non-Laura prairie story, I started May B. with my usual amount of cynicism and was immediately forced to withdraw it. This is poetry done right. The story is exciting and historically interesting (Little House fans will be all about it and have some prior knowledge of prairie life), our heroine is brave but self-doubting, and most importantly, the writing is emotionally raw and memorable. The blankness of the pages reminds me that Caroline Starr Rose’s word usage is seriously economical, yet I’m utterly satisfied. The ability to be concise, by my mind, is a trait of some of the truest talents; Think Winnie-the-Pooh, think Coraline, think anything Lois Lowry has ever written. It’s the ability to state things plainly yet wonderfully. It’s knowing how to use your words. Sparingly but powerfully.

The story is interesting enough on it’s own. May B., 12 years old, is being sent away to live with another family for half the year to help earn money until her Pa comes back for her around Christmas time. She’s close to her family, especially her brother Hiram, and an eager and intelligent, though struggling, student, and she does. NOT. want to go. She hates to leave home, and is afraid of what missing school will mean for her in the long run.

“You’re helping out, May,” Pa says. I’m helping everyone
except myself.

Her sense of disappointment is only deepened upon meeting the family she’s set to work for; the wife, a young city thing who has nothing but venom for prairie life is angry and unpleasant. Her husband is kind enough, though that doesn’t matter much when his disgruntled wife runs off and he chases after her… leaving May completely alone. On the prairie. With no rifle. Limited food. A blizzard coming. And absolutely no idea how to get home.

I’ve never seen water spread straight to the horizon;
these endless grasslands are sea enough for me. This soddy’s like an island far from any shoreline. My home is out there
somewhere.
To me,
a world away.

At first we’re impressed by May’s (and, in general, the hardworking, skilled know-how of children of by-gone eras) ability to fend for herself; she prepares food, she’s smart about protecting her bread starter, she mends the floor boards of the leaky sod hut, she even keeps up with her studies. In short, she does what I, repeatedly while reading this reminded myself, could not. But as winter weather creeps in, her food supply dwindles, and the cold literally barricades her in, May’s can-do spirit starts to dissipate; she’s physically sapped, and most heartbreakingly, she becomes completely discouraged by her reading difficulties — “The words on paper / don’t match the sounds I make”– dyslexia, though of course, there is no name for her learning impairment at the time. Descriptions of the prairie and tiny soddy, and the physical dangers that surround her (starvation, wolves, etc) are written alongside May’s inner monologue, where she alternately recalls happier times at home, mentally punishes her father and the Oblingers for leaving (a favorite line: “I hope Mrs. Oblinger fell of that horse and is still wandering the prairie. Mr. Oblinger / better be dead.” Ha.), fondly recalls an encouraging and patient former teacher, and relives the embarrassment of being labeled stupid and placed with the youngest children in class because of her inability to read aloud. May’s need to read slowly and separate words reinforces the use of poetry. Much of the novel reads straight through like any book, but there are moments when the reader is clearly meant to read more carfeully as well, and concentrate on the words. Pretty clever.

and grass,
always grass,
in different shades and textures
like the braids in a rag rug.
Miss Sanders told us that lines never end, and numbers go on forever.
Here,
in short-grass country,
I understand infinity.

Armed with only a broom to defend herself, May eventually hits her breaking point and decides to find her way home or die trying.

It’s a shame May B. won’t be released until January. It’s also a shame I’m not a bookseller anymore. Because I would have this book wrapped and sitting under many a girls’ tree this Christmas. Sure to be a hit with any Little House fans (of which I’m a very half-hearted one, if that’s more of a sell for you). The popularity of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, makes me think this would make a great gift for many adult “bonnet-heads” as well. A recommendation, certainly, for middle grade readers in search of historical fiction, as well as survival story lovers.

I loved this. It’s extremely entertaining, it’s memorable, it’s emotionally relatable, and even educational. 2012 isn’t even upon us and I’ve already got this on my list of 2013 Newbery hopefuls. Available January 10, 2012 from Schwartz & Wade/Random House. 240 pages, Age 8+

Like the cover? Well yeah you do, it’s lovely. So check out C.S. Neal’s process post to see more thumbnail sketches and how it all came together.

PSST: Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for making this ARC available to me.

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