Carrie Nation once exclaimed, “God has given me a mean fight, a dirty and dangerous fight!”
But her fight wasn’t anything like the struggle of a 12-year-old frontier girl to survive on her own in the wilderness.
Too often today we forget what hardships settlers endured while starting a life on the lone prairie or the untamed plains. Caroline Starr Rose refreshes our memories of days gone by during the 1870s using the short-grass prairie of Western Kansas and the soddies outlining Gove County as part of her inspiration for writing “May B.: A Novel.”
As heartbreaking and touchy as this novel is, any child, woman or man will experience more drama and depth because Rose has chosen to write in free-verse. Her style of writing and careful selection of words fill our souls with fire when life-threatening circumstances close in on “May B.” and members of her family.
Once the author reveals that May B. is a fighter, not a quitter, we, too, are able to tolerate the bleakness and move forward, just being thankful to follow the girl’s path toward her instinct to survive due to her quick thinking, a whole lot of luck, an odd combination of stubbornness, anger and humor, and people who take time to care.
Technically, May B.’s full name is Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, also known as May Betts. In the opening chapter, May B. is not too eager to leave home and live with the Oblingers, a couple who has just moved to Kansas. Their homestead is 15 miles away from the Betterly home. Mr. Oblinger’s bride is unsettled and missing her home. She’s not the only pioneer woman who detests Kansas. Many women stayed with their husbands and made the best of their lives in Kansas. Others, however, couldn’t wait to leave the territory, and so they did…alone.
It’s close to Christmastime, and while Mr. Oblinger is away, his wife needs someone to do chores and keep her company. May B.’s parents have the final say. And so May B., not her brother, Hiram, must live with this stranger, who is rather cranky and rude. Hiram seems calm about remaining behind, helping around the house.
The two families discover how difficult it is to raise crops. Nature can either be a godsend or a curse. Due to drought and other elements, many families, like the Betterlys and Oblingers, were forced to leave in hopes of leading a more successful life.
Mr. Betterly assures his daughter that she will the visit will just be until Christmas, which is two weeks away. In her own humorous way, the girl debates the pluses and disadvantages, the maybes and maybe nots, and decides that it will do her no harm to carry out her role with Mrs. Oblinger. Besides, it will be an appropriate occasion to catch up on her school studies. She brings with her a reader and slate, although her mother cautions that her daughter will not have time for studies.
Not only does May B. find herself uncomfortable in this home, she also has difficulty reading. During a free moment, she tries reading and stumbles on certain words. She doesn’t understand the problem with reading. What she suffers from is dyslexia. Here, Rose presents a different dilemma for May B. to work through. When in school, she is faced with the opposition—an unsympathetic teacher who forces May B. to recite sentences out loud in front of the class.
May B. is frustrated all the more because she knows she is intelligent and can accomplish many tasks. This makes readers stop to think how difficult it must have been in the late 1870s for children to experience such problems. Although children today share similar difficulties, back then the educational system and teaching practices were not as advanced as they are now.
What follows next is almost unbelievable, yet incredible, too. May B. ends up alone in a dirty, cold sod house, no company except for the creek and Mother Nature.
Food is growing scarce, and May B. must ration the meals and coffee. It becomes unbearably cold, snow forms in a huge heap outside the sod dwelling. It weighs heavy on the roof.
Borrowing clothing from Mrs. Oblinger, she tries to keep warm. She wraps several quilts around her body. She has to keep the house clean, stay warm and not starve.
Quickly, May B. becomes a woman, learning short cuts and other tricks to stay alive, behaving bravely when her safety seems hopeless. But she is not really alone. There is a lone wolf that prowls around, perhaps separated from the pack.
May B. listens to its howling, but despite her fear, decides to take a chance to escape. May B. cautiously begins her trek, realizing she could very well get lost in the snow, the white wilderness, and just maybe might die and nobody would find her. This girl’s courage is astonishing. It’s a wonder that she attempted a second escape. She refused to give in and was determined to share and enjoy Christmas with her family.
It should come as no surprise that Rose was also inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” children’s books. As a child, Rose was intrigued by Wilder’s writings and continues to model some of her own works after Wilder.
What also is of interest is that Rose, like the Ingalls family, moved and traveled almost constantly. The early pioneer educator, journalist and author had once described her own early years as “full of sunshine and shadow.”
Readers of “May B.” can automatically sense a resemblance and fellowship between the two. Both authors tend to write in a similar fashion, teaching others, especially children, the value of history and honesty. Through the power of words, Rose continues to encourage us to never forget the necessity to keep courage close, learn from mistakes and look forward to a positive future.
Carol A. Wright is a former Manhattan resident who currently works as a freelance writer.