Astonishing prose brings to life a forgotten woman and a lost world in a strange and bittersweet Southern pastoral. Since his award-winning debut collection of stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men, Brad Watson has been expanding the literary traditions of the South, in work as melancholy, witty, strange, and lovely as any in America. Now, drawing on the story of his own great-aunt, Watson explores the life of Miss Jane Chisolm, born in rural, early-20th-century Mississippi with a genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central "uses" for a woman in that time and place: sex and marriage. From the highly erotic world of nature around her to the hard tactile labor of farm life, from the country doctor who befriends her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, Miss Jane Chisolm and her world are anything but barren. The potency and implacable cruelty of nature, as well as its beauty, is a trademark of Watson's fiction. In Miss Jane, the author brings to life a hard, unromantic past that is tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty. Jane Chisolm's irrepressible vitality and generous spirit give her the strength to live her life as she pleases in spite of the limitations that others, and her own body, would place on her. Free to satisfy only herself, she mesmerizes those around her, exerting an unearthly fascination that lives beyond her still.
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"A little girl, I believe," Dr. Thompson pronounced. Brad Watson set the mood perfectly by showing rather than telling about this 1915 baby delivery in a small farmhouse in rural Mississippi. The midwife's "narrowed eyes" as she washed the baby, while the father waited outside with "his long face in half shadow," and mom viewed the baby like she was "some kind of potentially dangerous creature."
The condition of the baby, "Jane" but called "Janie," was medically defined as urogenital sinus anomaly and persistent cloaca. The doctor explained it to her when she was old enough to inquire of him about sex (and her developing crush on a cute young lad), "Everything is kind of tucked up inside you....And one thing you do not have is the little muscle that allows you to control yourself." She and the doctor form a special kind of father-daughter bond throughout the novel.
More than half the book is about Janie growing up on her family's farm in the 1920s into the early 1930s and the Great Depression, with an alcoholic dad and a bitter mother, both parents being "disposed to darkness of spirit," and a sister Grace who starts smoking at 11 and leaves home at 16. Despite nature and nurture dealing her bad hands, she is a sweet girl, always curious about plants and animals and their mating rituals:
"She was fascinated by the mushrooms and their dry or slimy tops and delicate stems and gills beneath their caps. She liked to pop her toes against the ones that burst into orange dust that bloomed in the breezeless air. But it was the quiet, modest ones that were most interesting. If they didn't want you to see them, you would not. They lived out their lives in shade and dampness, quivering when you passed and going so still if you happened to notice and squat down to take a closer look, to touch."
As a young girl, she found a stinkhorn mushroom, the most phallic fungus, and plunged it into a womb-shaped plant trying to figure out the act of mating. As she gets older, her sister invites Janie to watch her (sis is around 15) and an older boy do the deed in a secluded area. Later she spies on the neighbor couple, her curiosity piqued after she sees the woman with a black eye and bruises.
Watson poetically describes Janie's relationship to nature, as almost wild:
A "torrential storm, ... the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the quick and violent death of a chicken, the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom,... the somehow palpable feel of fading light -- were in some ways sexual for Jane."
She must endure the torment of a love unconsummated, and the novel offers answers to the question posed by the doctor toward the end, "Who can say what life will make of a body?" That is to say, can someone live a full life without physical love when we innately desire a mate with whom we share ourselves carnally?
In the same conversation, the doctor offered, "In my opinion many I've known would've been better off following their solitary natures."
Near the end, as Jane and Doc Thompson approach a flock of peacocks, he says: "...they don't have obvious genitalia. It's mostly on the inside. The males and females have this little puckering down there, called the cloaca, and when they're ready to mate the cloaca swell up, and they simply press their little puckerings together..... They call it a cloacal kiss. Now, don't you think that's just kind of endearing?"
"I do," Janes replies, "Maybe I'm part bird."
This was a tender, touching and poignant novel that's both sad and hopeful without ever getting sentimental. Simply Superb.