Verse Week Review: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
Before putting my fingers to the keyboard to write my review of May B., a middle grade novel in verse by Caroline Starr Rose, I went to the Poetry Foundation's website to see if my confusion between poetry and prose could be clarified. The answer I found didn't particularly surprise me.
To put it in the simplest of terms, it's all about snobbery. Poetry, according its aficionados, stands several rungs above verse. Verse does not--according to them--employ the sophisticated use of language that poetry does.
Keats apparently writes poetry and Robert Service apparently writes verse. What's the difference? I've yet to answer that one but I will say that I read Service for pleasure, for the joy of his playful and often robust use of language. Keats I read as assigned work in my studies at the universities where I earned my degrees. I enjoy and appreciate Keats, so I am not picking on his work, I promise. My point is about the joy of language, pure and simple.
It was Robert Service who my aunt used to recite around the campfire when we gathered after a fantastic day of swimming and hiking on our family outings (my family, come to think about it, was a bit odd). She recited verses that stays with me all these many years later.
One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, defined how she knows something is poetry. I lean on her words when asked what it means to call something poetic.
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me. I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off. I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
No there isn't. You feel the language as it blends itself into your own experience. Call it poetry, verse or prose.
May B, takes verse straight to your heart. May Betts is thirteen years old and the youngest in her family. She the dubious distinction of being sent to help a young wife settle into married life fifteen miles from May's family's Kansas homestead. The Oblinger couple aren't savvy about survival in the wilds of the 1800s Kansas prairie and Mr. Oblinger will pay for help and companionship for his young wife. The Betts need the money, so one fall day May leaves school and her home to stay “only until Christmas.”
I watch the wagon
until I see nothing on the open plain.
For the first time ever,
I am alone.
She felt alone even when Mrs. Oblinger sat beside her.
“I was wrong in trying this,”
Mrs. Oblinger says,
“but his letter was so kind.
I didn't think through prairie living.”
“If my brother hadn't shown him my
I wouldn't be stuck here.”
Beautiful yet plain language pulls you into the verse as if you too can experience what May experienced living a solitary life in the cold prairie with two people who didn't have an inkling how to live with joy in their lives, regardless of their surroundings.
May's complex character comes through verse in much the way stream of conscious thought does.
Its elemental emotions literally make you feel what May feels, what passes through her mind. Without using the term dyslexic, it's clear May must work harder to overcome difficulties in reading. She remember when her teacher forced her to read aloud at school. Other students learn of her struggle as she stumbles over words. They begin what to them is a jocular chant. To May it's a painful litany.
Maybe May B. can
Maybe May B. can't
When she finds herself left alone facing solitude with limited provisions and fuel for heat, it's clear that May can and will overcome. With a wolf literally at her door, you learn of her strength and power in a way that feels firsthand.
Through the beauty of her thoughts, the verses wrap themselves about you and the emotions May faces become understood in their purest form.
In one of the most poignant scenes in the book, she sits alone and desolate wrapped in a quilt sitting beneath a table in the Oblingers' sod cabin which is held together with frozen mud. She contemplates her dire situation.
Wouldn't it be better
Wouldn't it be easier
to stay in the hazy place where dreams come,
to simply fade away?
I crouch under the table,
listening to the rain
drip on the supper dishes I left out
in my rush
to stay dry.
My thoughts drift back to Teacher.
I can't let them happen
under the table,
where there's no task to keep me busy.
Survival requires food and heat. May can. There's no room for May can't. Catching fish with her fingers in a frozen stream, making what supplies she does have last and waiting until her father will come to bring her back home requires time.
Time was made
not for someone
Time makes room for thought as May resolutely struggles to survive. She wonders about her Pa, his reasons for sending her to this cabin.
I am going to stay here,
wrapped in these quilts,
let the fire die,
or maybe starve,
whichever comes first.
Then Pa will be sorry
for sending me here.
Was it worth
those few dollars
your daughter dead?
May's journey from security to a fearsome struggle for survival and finally to a deeper understanding of herself, her family and others.
This feeling comes through beautifully in the final lines of this beautiful novel in verse.
Even though I know
even though I understand what is and
there's no reason to stop hoping
I might find it,
that distant place
where the sun journeys
and earth at last meets the sky.
May B. can and will succeed. If she fails, she knows that she'll get up, shake off her disappointment and move forward until she finds her own place where earth meets the sky.