Wonderful: May B

This is a first for me: a historical novel in verse for children. And it is marvelous.

Mavis Elizabeth Betterly (aka May B.) is a 12-year-old living in western Kansas in a soddy (a hut built out of sod stacked grass-side down and scant bits of wood) in the late 1870s. Her parents hire her out to a newly married couple because the spring wheat didn’t do well and they need the money.

Around my finger
I twist a blade of grass.
It’s what I always wanted,
to contribute,
but not this way.
If I leave,
schooling is as good as finished.
Come Christmas I’ll be home
but even farther

Her father hitches up the wagon and drives her 15 miles away. She’ll be gone from July to Christmas.

The new family is not happy, the wife only a few years older than May and from the East — unprepared for prairie life.

The sound is muffled,
like a child at her mother’s shoulder.
Just as Hiram can’t hold back laughter during family prayers,
Mrs. Oblinger’s sobs escape the blankets.

Surely Mr. Oblinger hears?
Three of us awake,
two pretending sleep.

Something happens and May is left alone. In August. The nearest neighbor is gone East. Nobody knows she’s alone and there’s no way to get word out to her father.

When the world is black,
I’m most alone,
the silence thick around me.
I pray for wind,
for rain,
for the meadowlark
to break
the constant pound of quiet.

Her only company is the reader she took with her. The only problem with that: she’s dyslexic, and every attempt to read reminds her of Teacher repeatedly humiliating her in front of the school.

The tale of how May survives months on her own is gripping and moving and inspiring (and involves hillbilly hand fishing). It’s minimally told, but each detail is the right one. If you or your child like Little House on the Prairie, this book is for you. Don’t let the verse format intimidate you. My daughter isn’t a fast reader, but she whipped through the 225 pages in a few before-bed reading sessions. It came out this year, so it’s only in hardcover, but at least try to get it from your library. It’s wonderful.

May B., Caroline Starr Rose, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012.