Brad Watson says
that writing Miss Jane was on
his mind for a long time because the protagonist is based on his
great-aunt. The book’s publication in 2016, though, came at a
particularly timely point, as American society was growing in awareness
that not everyone neatly fits the category of “normal” female or male.
Jane Chisolm is born in early–20th century, rural Mississippi with a genital malformation that doesn’t yet have a name. Today it’s called persistent cloaca, and it can be surgically corrected. Then it was being researched, but there was no treatment. Marriage, sex, and motherhood are denied Jane. The anomaly also causes incontinence, subjecting her to a lifetime of diapers and the embarrassment of telltale smells. Potential embarrassment keeps her from going to school. As a teenager she is attracted to a neighbor boy, and he to her, but she breaks off their relationship because of what she can’t give him.
Watson compounds Jane’s misfortune with his depiction of her parents as depressed, loveless antagonists. A youngest child born when her parents thought they were through with babies, she is mostly ignored by her bitter mother. Her father cares for Jane, but he is a closemouthed alcoholic.
Yet Watson doesn’t portray Jane as a pitiful victim. On the contrary, she learns to deal with her condition and lives a long, rich life. Jane has a devoted relationship with her doctor, Ed Thompson, for her first 35 years until dies. Thompson, progressive for his time, is a steady source of companionship and encouragement to Jane, as well as of advocacy for a medical solution. Their tender bond is like the ideal father-daughter relationship. It pervades the bulk of the book, since Watson focuses on the first half of Jane’s life.
Jane is also enriched by her bond with nature. Remaining on her parents’ farm after they die, she is keenly attuned to its flora and fauna. She relates to nature in terms that are almost romantic — finding the shape of some tomatoes vaguely sexual, a peacock’s cry a lullaby, the behavior of chickens and pigs comical.
Miss Jane is a very inspiring book. For those who think they must have this or that to be fulfilled, the novel shows the possibility of taking what you’re given and making a meaningful life.
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