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Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Miss Jane by Brad Wat­son

Miss Jane by Brad Wat­son, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, 284 pages

Miss Jane is an un­likely novel about an even un­like­lier sub­ject. Set in ru­ral, early 20th-cen­tury Mis­sis­sippi, it fol­lows the birth, life, and death of Jane Chisolm, a wo­man born with a per­sis­tent cloaca. An ex­tremely rare dis­or­der, the con­di­tion af­fects only fe­males, leav­ing them with­out a vagina and only a small open­ing for waste, in most cases doom­ing them to life­long in­con­ti­nence.

But as au­thor Brad Wat­son learned from this fic­tional study of his real-life great-aunt, who lived in the same era, the con­di­tion does not pre­clude any­one from the busi­ness of liv­ing. Though she is kept from at­tend­ing school, Jane goes on to live a rather ex­quis­ite life, romp­ing through the woods, rais­ing pea­cocks, and for a brief run, even ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a sort of youth­ful, fully re­cip­ro­cated form of romantic love.

As Ed Thomp­son, the doc­tor who de­liv­ers Jane, knows all too well, most in­fants born dif­fer­ent in that era and place might not have sur­vived their family’s shame for more than a few days. But the doc­tor hov­ers over Jane and her family, re­as­sur­ing them that their baby girl is both a girl and other­wise nor­mal in ev­ery other ca­pac­ity. The family, hav­ing al­ready lost three kids, is quite un­pre­pared for Jane. Her con­cep­tion came from a hus­band drunk on moon­shine, a wife passed out from lau­danum, and a sex­ual act that, in our own era, would have been con­sid­ered mar­i­tal rape.

But grace comes to Jane in the form of Thomp­son, the doc­tor who ends up adopt­ing her. If there were a No­bel Prize for guardians tact­fully de­liv­er­ing hard life les­sons to vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, he would make the short­list. “I need you to tell me why I’m the way I am, why I’m dif­fer­ent or how I’m dif­fer­ent. Why can’t I con­trol my­self?” Jane asks the doc­tor.

“I be­lieve you have just about ev­ery­thing, if not ev­ery­thing, that any other girl has,” he says. “But on the out­side you don’t have ev­ery­thing they do . ... What you have on the in­side is just as com­plex — I mean it is just as much a won­der of a mir­a­cle of the hu­man body as any­one else. But it didn’t get to fin­ish putting it­self all to­gether, didn’t get to fin­ish it­self up and get ev­ery­thing right, be­fore it was time for you to be born . ... But it does not mean that you are not a nor­mal lit­tle girl. You’re just a lit­tle girl who has to deal with more things than most lit­tle girls. And that will make you strong. It al­ready has.”

Much of the drama in this finely writ­ten novel emerges out of a young Jane’s en­coun­ters with na­ture. While her mom keeps her from school — “I don’t see the sense in putting you through it . ... Most girls, I’d say it’s a waste of time, any­way,” she says — to fend off taunts over Jane’s in­con­ti­nence, she makes sure her daugh­ter has a rig­or­ous ed­u­ca­tion in farm­ing, an­i­mal hus­bandry, and medic­i­nal plant gath­er­ing. All of these will be sur­vival skills if she is to live out her life on her family’s farm es­tate with­out a hus­band or chil­dren.

So her mom takes Jane to the woods, where she learns to source chicory, prim­rose roots, wild onion, sas­safras, teaberry, and rose hips. But in na­ture, Jane is al­ways look­ing for an an­swer to the mys­tery of her body. Pulling her catch out the wa­ter, she watches the bass squirm in her hands as she frets about the fate of a fish born with­out gills, won­der­ing “if it just floated to the sur­face of the wa­ter and died.”

The ru­ral life also nur­tures Jane’s emerg­ing sex­u­alilty. On her family farm, she raises pea­cocks, en­tranced by their ex­otic beauty and mys­ti­fied by their “cloa­cal kiss,” a form of re­pro­duc­tion ex­clu­sive to birds. She con­tem­plates and ob­serves the mat­ing habits of pigs and rac­coons.

A few years later, as a teenager, the woods pro­vide pro­tec­tive cover as she hap­pens upon a young mar­ried cou­ple, lost in their love­mak­ing. Jane feels com­pletely en­tranced and ashamed that she can­not look away. Left ut­terly alone to learn about sex­u­al­ity and baf­fled by the wo­man’s cries, she wor­ries that her in­no­cent act of teenage voyeurism has in­ter­fered with the cou­ple’s ef­fort to con­ceive a child.

The adult phases of Jane’s life don’t re­ceive as much at­ten­tion, the bulk of her break­throughs and epipha­nies hav­ing oc­curred to her, by ne­ces­sity, as a young girl and teenager. Near­ing the end of her life in the 1980s, as an el­derly sin­gle wo­man liv­ing alone on her family’s farm, she pushes back tears and anger to po­litely de­cline the of­fer of Johns Hop­kins doc­tors who prom­ise a new surgery can re­verse her con­di­tion.

“I must po­litely de­cline your of­fer to ‘fix me,’ so to speak,” writes Jane, in what could be a fit­ting an­them for her life of smil­ing sto­icism. “I am now an old wo­man, I live alone on my family’s farm, and have no in­ter­est in go­ing through such an op­er­a­tion as I see no need for it, and there is cer­tainly not the de­sire.” — Casey Sanchez

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