By Brad Watson
Read Dec 2017
For the first time in my life I knowingly have an overdue library book—this one. I can’t renew it because it’s on-hold for other book discussion members. But I really don’t want to give it up. Enough said about this book? Well I’ll say it anyway.
I’m not sure what I like most about this book—Miss Jane or the author’s beautiful language.
Miss Jane was conceived in 1915 in rural Mississippi when her father had been drinking heavily (his own moonshine which would be a stable source of income through thick and thin times) and her mother, then 39, was heavily sedated by laudanum which she took, on doctor’s direction only when her nerves were most frayed. She was born with a genital defect that rendered her incontinent and without means for sexual intercourse, but was otherwise normal physically and mentally.
Miss Jane’s childhood is a mixture of delight and pain. Her various senses of sight, smell, and touch were regularly delighted through the physicality of living on a farm containing sharecropped fields, forests, streams, and animals. Miss Jane desperately wanted to attend school when she reached school age, but the guidance from Dr. Thompson, the doctor who delivered her , monitored her health, and corresponded regularly with distant experts regarding her condition (always hoping their surgical techniques would advance sufficiently to help Miss Jane) regarding limiting food and drink were insufficient. Although the uncontrollable accidents were actually few, the hunger and thirst associated with avoiding food and fluids to prevent the accidents left her too lightheaded to function in the classroom. Lack of formal education didn’t deter her from learning to read and write and do arithmetic. She was self-taught; arithmetic knowledge came from watching her father tend his small store set up to help his sharecroppers obtain needed supplies. She eventually ran the store herself while just a child using a step stool to reach the counter and shelves; store revenue soars since it was open much more of the time as a result.
Grace, her older sister, was charged with tending Miss Jane from birth until Grace successfully moves away from home into town as a late teen. Both girls show amazing determination—Grace to flee her family and Miss Jane to plow through life despite the challenges her body provides. Grace’s story is a moving subplot in this book. Her desire to be away from the farm and her family and what she is willing to do and not do to fulfill this desire, and how this impacts Grace’s relationship with Miss Jane is a powerful aspect of this book.
Dr. Thompson is another potent character in this story. We learn about his concern for Miss Jane, his interactions with her family, his own personal life story, and his multi-year correspondence with the medical experts about Miss Jane.
Miss Jane’s relationships with Grace, Dr Thompson, her father, and her mother, and Elijah Key are important in shaping her although Miss jane’s relationship with herself is even more of a determinant. As Brad Watson tells us in the first chapter “She did not like the vexation of her incontinence, and wished she would outgrow it, but eventually accepted it as part of who she was, no matter how unsavory. She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could, and when she could no longer do that, she would adjust her life to its terms accordingly. So she did not fear her own strangeness, even though her awareness of it grew and evolved as she got older. In time her gaunt, dark-haired beauty would be altered and sharpened by age, a visible sign of her difference, her independence, and a silent message to all that her presence in the world was impenetrable beyond a point of her own determination.”
Miss Jane and Miss Jane slowly embrace the reader showing the reader the possibilities that Miss Jane embraces as her body continues to provide her barriers and challenges that could overwhelm and blunt the human spirit. Miss Jane provides us a tender and rare model that life is always what we make of it.