Verse novels are tricky things. When done correctly, they invoke powerful emotions and rich settings. When done incorrectly, they play fast and loose with emotions and risk coming off as blather. I never really know what prompts a writer to choose verse for their storytelling mode. Does it come to them in poetry, or is it a conscious decision of form? I wondered such wonderings when I picked up Caroline Starr Rose’s May B. But nary a few pages in, and questions were gone from my head. I was absorbed.
May Betterly won’t go. At least, that’s what she thinks to herself. Her mother and father have decided to send her away to let her work for another homesteader and his new wife. And May won’t go. Won’t leave her family, her brother, her school. But will and won’ts don’t mean very much, when you’re a girl living on the prairie, and your family needs the money. So away May goes, to live with the Oblingers until Christmas. But one day Mrs. Oblinger leaves her husband, and Mr. Oblinger runs after her, and neither returns, leaving May alone in a soddy in the middle of the prairie, with no help, and no way home. And thus begins May’s tale of survival into a harsh winter, and her struggle with demons inside and out, hunger and wolves at the door.
The book that I was most reminded of while reading May B. was Karen Hesse’s Newbery medal winning Out of the Dust. There must be something about the sparseness of the historical Midwest landscape that encourages the free verse poetry. And May is just as compelling a character and a voice as Out of the Dust’s Billie Jo, which is a good thing, because we spend the majority of the work with May and May alone. Everything rests on the authenticity of her voice, and thankfully Ms. Rose has confidence in May’s voice, in spades. “I whistle,/I spit,/think up as many unladylike things as I can,/and do them./Out in the open./For the whole empty world to see.” I was with May every painful, hard-earned step of the way. Verse novels either get me, or they don’t, and May B. got me right from the start. 2012 is starting out as a very fine year indeed.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
2012, Schwartz & Wade
2012, Schwartz & Wade