Books

Rising Above

National Book Award finalist Brad Watson’s new novel is a testament to the power of the spirit

photo: Margaret Houston


Jane Chisolm, the dauntless heroine of Brad Watson’s new novel, Miss Jane, was “born into that time and place, in the farmland cut from the pine and broadleaf woods of east-central Mississippi, 1915, when there was no possibility of doing anything to alleviate her condition, no medical procedure to correct it.” Physicians call that condition, a real though rare birth defect, a persistent cloaca; it’s when the reproductive, rectal, and urinary tracts fuse into a single common channel, equipping one with an orifice more birdlike than mammalian. “It was something to be accepted,” Watson goes on, “grim-faced, as they accepted crop failure, debt, poverty, the frequent deaths of infants and small children from fevers and other maladies.”

This memo about grim-faced acceptance, however, never got into Jane Chisolm’s hands, providing Miss Jane—Watson’s second novel, coming fourteen years after his National Book Award–short-listed The Heaven of Mercury—with heavy ballast of grace and dignity. The novel is plainly and organically plotted: We follow Jane from birth to old age, from her semihalcyon childhood on her family’s farm to her efforts to attend school despite her ungovernable incontinence, from her struggle to reconcile her condition with the love she develops for a neighbor boy to her adulthood in the town of Mercury. That Jane cannot bear children or have sex and is socially handicapped by her disorder is at the foreground of some but not all of the novel’s scenes, yet even then, from the background, a message penetrates: It doesn’t matter, not in the grand scheme of things.

Watson, who grew up in Mississippi and based Jane Chisolm on his similarly afflicted great-aunt, could’ve steered this novel down any number of lurid detours, saddled Jane’s life with showier traumas, used her condition as a master key for opening the doors to any number of issues. Caldwell, Faulkner, O’Connor: All of them, one suspects, would’ve led Jane down a more twisted and vulnerable path. Even the Brad Watson of fourteen years ago, whose town of Mercury then had a grotesque, gothic smog to its air, might’ve plotted a different course. The reader braces for the appearance of evil, or at least cruelty, but is mostly denied it. Even Jane’s sister Grace, whose recklessness and opportunism seem to ordain her for later tragedy, is spared. Their self-destructive father, a farmer who sells moonshine on the side, sometimes teeters on the far edge of decency—yet Watson pulls him back, guiding him gently toward redemption. This is a pine knot of a novel, hard and durable, and the sap it leaches is mercy.

Watson, who grew up in Mississippi and based Jane Chisolm on his similarly afflicted great-aunt, could’ve steered this novel down any number of lurid detours, saddled Jane’s life with showier traumas, used her condition as a master key for opening the doors to any number of issues. Caldwell, Faulkner, O’Connor: All of them, one suspects, would’ve led Jane down a more twisted and vulnerable path. Even the Brad Watson of fourteen years ago, whose town of Mercury then had a grotesque, gothic smog to its air, might’ve plotted a different course. The reader braces for the appearance of evil, or at least cruelty, but is mostly denied it. Even Jane’s sister Grace, whose recklessness and opportunism seem to ordain her for later tragedy, is spared. Their self-destructive father, a farmer who sells moonshine on the side, sometimes teeters on the far edge of decency—yet Watson pulls him back, guiding him gently toward redemption. This is a pine knot of a novel, hard and durable, and the sap it leaches is mercy.

The novel’s thrills come in unexpected places. Watching Jane come to terms with her own nature, we’re sideswiped by her dawning awareness of the larger nature around her. “She loved most being in the woods,” Watson writes, “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.”

The life at the center of Miss Jane is, as Ed Thompson, the country doctor who attends to Jane, puts it, “complicated, but essentially normal.” Jane Chisolm does not make it through life without heartbreak, disappointments, moments of indignity, and thwarted desires; but neither do the rest of us. “Life is not fair in that way or any other way,” Dr. Thompson tells her. “We are who and what we are.” And in the grand scheme of things, as Miss Jane makes gracefully clear, that’s more than enough.


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