I love it when I get to talk books in the strangest of places, like cardio class for example. A fellow book lover who knows me from the library lamented that she hasn't read anything great for ages and I agreed. Nothing is making me swoon. In fact, she had just finished the new Wally Lamb and was sorely disappointed. Since "I'll Take You There" is on my "to read" list, she has offered me her copy for my opinion. Anyone else out there read this novel yet?
I did have the chance to read Brad Watson's book, "Miss Jane," which was much touted at Book Expo last year and was on the long list for the National Book Award. A fictionalized story of Watson's great aunt, who was born with a genital birth defect that precluded her being able to make love or give birth, this is a quiet, melancholy little novel. Though I'll admit that it would take a certain sensibility to actually enjoy it, Jane is a pleasure to spend time with. She is such a sensible, smart little girl that it will break your heart to witness the chill rebuff that she gets from each of her withholding parents and her older sister, Grace.
Unable to continue in school because of the difficulty of cleaning herself and the diapers she's forced to wear, she learns about her world by silently watching and observing nature. Some of Watson's finest scenes take place on Jane's parents' farm where she discovers all the facts of life she needs to know from the pigs, cows, birds, and insects with which she shares space.
It's the early 20th century in rural Mississippi and medicine is not yet ready to handle a disability like Jane's. Fortunately, though, her physician, Dr. Thompson, recognizes something special and precocious about Jane, sharing books and conversation with her over the years, becoming both a father figure and a dear friend.
Eschewing the life of a surgeon in a big city like his friend at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Thompson chose the life of a country doctor, dealing with the poor and uneducated, often taking a jug of homegrown whiskey as payment in full for services rendered. A wise and caring man, he finds a kindred spirit in Jane and she in him. In fact, I'd say they most likely saved each other's lives.
Watson succeeds at honoring his aunt, a woman of resilience and resourcefulness, who understood the difference between being alone and being lonely. Still, one can't help but wonder what Miss Jane might have become had she been born in a different place and time, to other parents.