Miss Jane: A Novel
by Brad Watson
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016
Jane Chisolm fears few things. Not snakes or coyotes or screeching owls or cyclones or lightening or God or even her own strangeness. Her entry into the world takes place in central Mississippi in 1915 with the aid of Emmalene, the midwife, and Dr. Thompson, who hitches his wagon to the porch railing just in time to see the crowning head of what he hopes is the last child for the parents. Fifteen minutes later, as he holds a lantern over the crying baby, he sees something that gives him pause. After he is fed a plate of chicken and dumplings, he rides back to his house with a jar of homemade whiskey tucked at his feet as payment for his services and ponders how to help the helpless baby. In the years to come, he becomes Jane’s closest friend and medical advocate. But for now, his thoughts echo the words of the baby’s father: “Good lord. What trouble have we gone and brought into this world now?”
In a novel that is equal parts haunting reality and delicate beauty, Brad Watson tells the story of Miss Jane, born to live a hard scrapple, isolated life due to a rare genital malformation that makes her both incontinent and incapable of conception – conditions that render her a social outcast. Watson modeled the character after his own great-aunt, Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay.
At its heart, Miss Jane is a book about character and how people, when confronted with life’s limitations, either fall under the weight or bear the load and move on.
Jane’s parents are already heavy-hearted before Jane enters their lives. Ida still grieves the loss of her favorite child, William, who died at three. Her grief has turned her into an angry, bitter woman with dark thoughts who, on the night Jane is conceived, only remembers waking “in a rage of silent tears.” Her husband uses work and whiskey to quieten a similar rage in his heart. As a toddler, Jane is basically left to the care of her sister Grace, who at the age of ten, witnessed the birth. Until the child can learn how to care for her own “accidents,” Grace is the one who changes the diapers or allows her sister to run about the property with a bare bum. While at first such an upbringing seems cruel, to Jane it feels like liberation. She loves being in the woods with just the pecking of the birds and forest animals, “the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels.” She feels comfortable there, “as if nothing could be unnatural in that place within but apart from the world.”
Later, when she persuades her mother to allow her to attend school, she quickly realizes and accepts that she is different. Her solution is to spend time exclusively on the family farm. She teaches herself to read with books from Dr. Thompson and learns to count by managing the till of her father’s country store. She learns about creation from her observations of the farm animals. Watson describes Jane’s relationship with nature as one might talk about a lover – the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom
By the age of sixteen, she is tired of being alone, which segues to the most loving and tender part of the book – her attraction to Elijah Key who lives on a nearby farm and his mutual attraction to her. Carefully watched over by her father, she attends community dances and learns the pleasure of flirtation. But her joy is short-lived when Dr. Thompson reminds her of how cruel it would be to lead the young man on with no hope of bearing children with him.
Then the crash of ’29 comes. Years pass. Grace moves to town. The farm fails. Ida grieves. Chisolm drinks. Dr. Thompson still tries to find a surgeon who can correct Jane’s condition. Possible suitors come and go. Crows angle over fields; hawks hover for mice; light cold breezes blow; pecans grow in neglected groves. Throughout it all, Jane lives her life – lonesome, yes, but at peace. She learns that life doesn’t require perfection to be lived to its fullest.
“If you get down to it,” Dr. Thompson tells her toward the end of the story as they watch a flock of peacocks in the yard, “You’ve had love. And as I understand it, once you have something like that, you have it forever.”
It is a tender moment between a widower whose own marriage was not filled with love and a woman who knows far more about love than many more experienced in its arts. The scene is a fitting ending to a story that touches the heart from start to finish.
My wine recommendation:
While Miss Jane sometimes drank her daddy’s apple brandy, I think she would also find to her liking Old South Winery’s Sweet Scarlett Muscatine Rose. Made from grapes grown in Natchez, MS, the wine is similar in color and sweetness to White Zinfandel and goes great with party foods, desserts or just sipping on the front porch. $10