Confession time: I picked this one up because of the cover. I do that sometimes. Who could resist that peacock? It’s an exciting method of book selection because I read novels I would have never considered otherwise and occasionally discover a gem. Miss Jane is, fortunately, one of those gems.
Miss Jane is about Jane Chisolm- an extraordinary girl born in the deep South in the early 19th century with a physical deformity so extreme that she can never have children or even control her bowels. Though Jane struggles with her handicap, it doesn’t define her and she manages to have a beautiful and meaningful life in an otherwise hardscrabble, country existence. Jane’s father is an alcoholic, brewing his own stuff during prohibition, and her mother is deeply unhappy with their relationship, her life, and the world. Jane’s sister, Grace, just wants out of her childhood home and will do anything to achieve that goal. Jane’s doctor, Dr. Thompson, delivers Jane into the world and then spends the rest of his life trying to help her improve the quality of her existence and to also educate the medical community about her condition (there was very little information on it at the time). Miss Jane is based on one of Brad Watson’s actual relatives and I found it to be a fascinating study of not only the South at the turn of the century, but also how poor farming communities handled day-to-day drudgery, poor prospects, and major differences of mind and body.
The farm and nature portions of the story read a lot like a southern, more adult version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, which I’ve always loved, so I guess it’s no huge surprise that I enjoyed this as well. I also loved the way that he wrote about dogs on the farm. Here’s Mr. Chisolm and his hound:“You got the face of bored sadness,” he said to the dog. The dog didn’t take umbrage. Came over beside his left foot and plopped down with a heavy sigh as if he were the one going through all the trouble on this evening.” pg 16 ebook. The peacock from the cover makes an appearance in the story as well, but that has a lot to do with Jane’s condition and I’ll let Watson tell you that detail in his own, lovely way.
Here’s Dr. Thompson, trying to understand the attitudes of the country folk he treats: “Sometimes he was astonished how often he forgot people’s cruel ignorance, people who’d never been anywhere but the little hamlets where they were born, raised, and would die. Not that he hadn’t known plenty of so-called sophisticated people with the same attitude.” pg 39 ebook. Dr. Thompson is a complicated character. He’s highly educated and open minded, but prone to indulging in vices like Mr. Chisolm’s homemade alcohol and prostitutes. Dr. Thompson sees the worst of those he treats- the abuse and neglect- but also their sacrifices and loves. At first, it seems that he only cares for Jane as a medical oddity, but as the story progresses, he comes to love her as a father figure.
In some ways, the isolated world that Jane grew up in was perfect for her. Take the description of her grade school: “It was a small school that took the community children all the way from first grade to high school graduation, and there were not many enrolled, so the environment was relatively intimate, like some great, overgrown family, in a way. The children seemed to know and understand one another like siblings, whether lovingly, or with hostility, or with the purposeful ignoring of this one or that.” pg 58 ebook. That’s the positive and negative of growing up in a small town- that everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Jane’s struggle to fit in is written very beautifully by Watson: “She’d never put a word to the sadness she could sometimes feel, especially in the last couple of years, that would linger at the edge of her thoughts like the invisible ghost of someone she thought she recognized but didn’t know who it was, some kind of familiar she couldn’t quite grasp.” pg 127 ebook
Or this: “She stayed so busy and tired that it seemed like time didn’t matter anymore. Didn’t so much pass as disappear, like memories neglected and forgotten. Years can slip away in such a manner, in such a life.” pg 156 ebook.
A read-alike for Miss Jane: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich, a story about a family in the deep south but much more violent and with drugs.
Thanks for reading!