May B. is the story of twelve-year-old May Betterly. May lives with her parents and older brother, Hiram, in a sparsely populated area of Kansas in the late nineteenth century. (Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books will recognize the setting, as it is very similar to those described in those books of the prairies in Minnesota and Wisconsin.)
The book is written in free verse, which makes it a much faster read than any of Wilder’s books. In Part One May has discovered she is to live for five months or so with a neighboring newly-wed couple to help keep house and do other chores, for which her family will be paid. She is understandably angry and unwilling to go. She is not only afraid of living in an unfamiliar place with strangers, but realizes that this may be the end of her opportunity to attend school. Although May has a learning disability (dyslexia), she is smart and hungry for the knowledge and insight that she has already tasted in school so far. Though she struggles with reading due to her disability, May dreams of becoming a teacher.
What is a financial necessity for her parents feels like banishment and betrayal to young May. This is beautifully portrayed in the first part of the book. Unfortunately, the exquisite original hold of the book is lost after that.
When May’s new living arrangements take a bizarre turn and she is forced to cope with the brutal elements of the prairie on her own the story loses its focus. It wanders back and forth from May’s musings about her learning difficulties and resulting humiliation at school to the need for her to pursue heat and food on her own. The book isn’t realistic in any details of May’s “survival.” The reader sees May depressed, curled up in a ball for warmth, ruminating on her difficulties and occasionally walking outside, until a blizzard snows her in completely.
How does she not succumb to starvation and hypothermia? The book never gives any indication that she has coped with these basic survival problems. Both May’s physical hardships and the mental and emotional struggles could be believeable, but neither are dealt with to any degree of satisfaction.
In Part Three the plot is awkwardly forced into a cliche ending that makes no sense when joined with what comes before it. It is beyond unrealistic; it is confusing and not thought out clearly. The author wants to make a grandiose statement about overcoming your own personal challenges and being true to who you are but it rings hollow because there was no authentic voice or story behind it.
This book is particularly disappointing because the first third is so good. In the end, however, it is a lot of words with no plot, characters or substance to back them up.