Miss Jane: A Novel
by Brad Watson
[The doctor] snipped the cord and took a good look at the child…
A little girl, I believe.
You believe? [said her father]
[She] was born into that time and place…when there was no possibility of doing anything to alleviate her condition. It was something to be accepted, grim-faced…
ARC: E-book from edelweiss
in exchange for an unbiased review.
W. W. Norton
Hardcover: 288 pages
Historical Fiction/Physical Disability
Miss Jane is loosely based on the author’s great-aunt, Mary Ellis (Jane) Clay. The”real” Jane had an unknown abnormality that left her incontinent and made her an oddity in a time when women had few opportunities to forge a life outside of marriage and family. The author’s goal, unlike his previous more heady works, was to fashion a more natural work following one character from conception through her death.
Ida and Sylvester Chisolm led a hard knock life on their subsistence farm in Mercury, Mississippi in the early 20th century. WWI had just ended and the Great Depression was on the doorstep waiting to further challenge poor farm families. Ida having birthed five children and buried two of them by the time she was 39 was glad to have reached the end of that part of her life. Sylvester and Ida were “disposed to darkness of spirit” and they both dealt with the harsh realities in their own negative way. Sly turned to drink and the comfort of his woodland still. Ida turned to laudanum to calm her nerves and when provoked to anger manically chopping wood to match sticks.
Jane was conceived one night when Sly was so drunk he mistook his wife for “two-dollar” whore and Ida was drugged to unconsciousness. Weeks later, Ida, unaware of the event, was stunned to learn that she was pregnant. She worried that her anger at her husband would somehow doom her unwanted unborn child.
Jane entered this weary world with a congenital defect that was the result of incomplete genital, urinary and bowel development in the womb. Jane’s dealing with all the challenges incontinence throws at her is the heart of the novel.
I will start right off the bat telling you that I had difficulty rating this book when I finished. So I did what I usually do when I need time to think things through. Pulled weeds and let my mind ramble for a while. As usual, given time, I find my answer. There were many contradictory themes- sexuality/abstinence, hate/love, anger/patience, poverty/wealth, community/isolation, male/female, self-sacrifice/abandonment to name a few to mull over.
Other pivotal characters in Jane’s development were the loving family doctor, her older sister, Grace, and Jane’s one chance at true love (doomed from the beginning). Jane’s uplifting spirit strives and yearns for wholeness; normalcy as known by the rest of the world with the freedom to live openly and without pity. In her quest she discovers her freedom in nature where she knows that she is normal- normal for Jane and is at peace with that knowledge.
Recommended reading for those days you need something quieter. Sharing the woodlands and trails with Jane will calm your soul.