I love stories of life on the prairie, circa Laura Ingalls Wilder and I also love verse novels, which makes May B. by Caroline Starr Rose the perfect book for me, and for any reader who likes a story about survival, bravery and perseverance.
When we first meet twelve-year-old Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, May B. for short, she has just dared her beloved older brother Hiram, who can do no wrong in his parent's eyes, to chop off a hank of her braid and lost some hair in the process. At dinner that night, May learns that her father has hired her out to newlyweds, the Oblingers, until Christmas. This means May will not be able to return to school and she might have to give up her dream of taking the teacher exam in two years. She was probably going to have to give up the dream anyway, since she can't read. On top of this, she knows she will not be missed on the small soddy farm her family is homesteading. Hiram, a year older, can help in ways she can't. Pa tells her she is helping out. "I'm helping everyone except myself," May thinks.
The Oblingers live fifteen miles away in a smaller soddy with a dirt floor and a leaking ceiling and Mrs. Oblinger, in her fancy red dress, isn't much older than May and clearly looks down on her. However, May doesn't have to worry about her relationship with the Oblingers for long. Mrs. Oblinger runs away and, thinking they will return that night, Mr. Oblinger follows her, taking the horse and wagon.
May is alone. She has no idea when the Oblingers will return, no way to communicate with her family. The days turn into weeks. She keeps house, taking time to practice her lessons at the end of the day. Eventually, she tops tending to the chores and spends as much time as she pleases in bed or tucked in the rocking chair, practicing her lessons, struggling to read the words on the page that seems to be moving, shifting, changing every time she revisits them. It is fascinating to watch how May chooses to spend her days, especially when she realizes she is completely alone and answers to no one. It's also compelling to watch her struggle with reading as she has flashbacks to a teacher who recognized her learning challenges and spent extra time working with May, teaching her coping mechanisms like squeezing a rag and tandem reading out loud, and the teacher who took her place and assumed May was ignorant and incapable of learning. Reflecting, May thinks,
So many things
I know about myself
I've learned from others.
Without someone else to listen,
Without someone else to listen,
to tell me what to do,
who I am,
do I get to decide for myself?
And, of course, the suspense of diminishing food supplies and increasing snow and cold had me on the edge of my seat for most of the novel, which I devoured in one sitting. May is a brave, strong character and watching her struggle to survive while also determining to overcome the challenges she faces when reading so that she can become a teacher is powerful, as is Rose's verse, which is stark and moving, even when it is bleak.
For readers who enjoy verse novels and survival stories, check out To Stay Alive by Skila Brown, the story of Mary Graves, who was nineteen when her family joined the Donner Party on the Oregon Trail. Brown's book is better suited to older readers, as the story of the Donner Party is grim at times.
And, don't miss Blue Birds (review to come!) another verse novel by Caroline Starr Rose. Set in 1587 in the settlement of Roanoke, it is the story of the friendship of Alis, who is English, and Kimi a Roanoke girl.
Source: Purchased Library Bound Edition