Born Different and Special (Mercury, Mississippi, 1915-early 70s): BRAVE is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane. Brave girl/brave woman, bravely written, bravely published. For it’s the fictionalized story of a Mississippi farm girl born in the early 20th century with a rare, life-altering anatomical condition that’s uncomfortable to read about, inspired by the true case of the author’s great-aunt Jane. Our Jane is a “strange and beautiful child, big eyes so expressive, as if wiser or more knowing than possible.”
HEART-BREAKING is the second word that comes to mind because when your bodily and sexual functions are significantly abnormal and medical science is not advanced enough to repair those abnormalities – so different than everyone else (reportedly 1 in 20,000 are born with the condition) – engaging in normal activities and relationships is an enormous, nearly impossible mountain to climb – school, friendships, boyfriends, intimacy. So this is a SAD story about Jane’s childhood and womanhood that, for the most part, feels painfully lonely, heavy-hearted. And yet, Jane’s not mired in sadness or bitterness. Her inner strength is a gift to all of us struggling with something.
Jane’s spirit contrasts with her chronically bereft mother, her downtrodden father, and the coolness of her sister, who grew to love her because “I have to love something” – though each has their own reasons to be justifiably melancholy.
Jane’s was the home of a hard-working farm life, through the years of the Depression, in which an uncharacteristic hug from her father “sent her senses singing.” Fortunately for her, she took to farming and loved roaming the woods on the property. So, she was a “good-humored, even cheerful little child” who matured into a self-sufficient woman of remarkable acceptance of her lot in life. Miraculous, given her childhood was marked by no friends, embarrassment (diapering, soiling), and so many sacrifices. A bright child, she tried to go to school but it was untenable. Instead, she learned math helping in her father’s general store and was pleasant with the customers, mostly sharecroppers and tenants who worked the farm, which grew cotton, tobacco, corn, pecans and raised some cattle and pigs.
Watson’s prose is sensitive yet unsentimental. He’s not afraid to describe the harsh realities of Jane’s physicality – although you don’t learn of the precise medical term for Jane Chisolm’s condition until page 199. It doesn’t matter. The point is to be drawn into what Jane went through day after day, year after year, for the rest of her life. The slower pace of the novel suits the heaviness of her circumstances.
As the heavy burden of Jane’s daily living grows on us – the lengths she goes through (starving and dehydrating herself, wearing layers of slips and perfume) – we’re awed by her amazing grace. Grace is a word used often in the novel. Her sister’s name is Grace; a chapter is titled Grace in the Wilderness; and Jane “moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leaf will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze.” Grace is a perfect word for the beauty, dignity, and spirituality Jane evokes for life, particularly when she loses herself in nature.
“She loved most being in the woods, with the diffused light and the quiet there. Such a stillness, with just the pecking of ground birds and forest animals, the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels playing up and down a tree. The silent, imperceptible unfurling of spring buds into blossom. She felt comfortable there. As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”
Two characters who touch Jane’s isolated world magnify that grace:
- Jane’s doctor, Ed Thompson, who lives two miles from the family farm. His relationship with Jane deepens over the years, medically of course and then emotionally as he comes to care about her like his own daughter. He’s childless and for much of the novel a widower.
- A tender, sixteen-year-old boy with blue eyes like Jane’s, Elijah Key. His self-consciousness about wearing eyeglasses almost startles us compared to what Jane endures, reminding us that how we perceive ourselves and accept our own imperfections impacts us greatly. Theirs is a brief interlude (so is her flirting with boys at a dance hall at sixteen) that offers respites of joy.
In a less eloquent way, we’re also moved by Jane’s increasingly alcoholic father who quietly feels remorseful and guilty believing it was his alcoholic transgressions that cursed his beautiful child. Jane was the last of five children, conceived late in her mother Ida’s life. By then, she’d lost two boys to illness, and her two older sons had already left home and are barely a presence. Jane’s sister also couldn’t wait to escape into town, initially working as a seamstress. For a number of years, Jane lived with her; she too could sew. Mercury, the town, is also the setting for another of the author’s novels, The Heaven of Mercury, a finalist for the National Book Award.
The heart-tugging and philosophical power of the novel asks us to dig deeply about the meaning of love. What Jane and Elijah had was pure love – not physical love but a love that transcended that. A love more extraordinary.
So another word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane is UNFORGETTABLE.