On a visit to Inkwood Books in Tampa Florida, the proprietor recommended a novel she thought I would like – based on my stack of purchases awaiting payment. She correctly introduced me to Miss Jane by Brad Watson. The novel has no conmen, no evildoers, but only farmers and sharecroppers desperately working the land to scrape out an existence for their families. True, they do have some individuals who drink a little too much, but they care for their families and their children. The story will warm your heart and make you want to bundle up for cold weather right alongside the Chisolms.
Brad Watson teaches at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. He has written two collections of stories and a novel, Heaven of Mercury, which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award. His short stories have been published widely. Miss Jane tells the story of the Chisolm Family – Ida, his wife, Grace the eldest daughter, and Jane. A male baby had died soon after childbirth. Jane was born with a complicated birth defect. Back in 1915, nothing could be done for the unfortunate child. Today, her condition could be easily fixed by surgery. Watson describes the little girl, “She had been a spritely young girl, slim and a bit lank-haired but with a sweet face and good humor, but by now had grown taller and begun to take on a gaunt, dark-eyed beauty, and moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leak will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze” (173). Dr. Thompson admired the Chisolms for their work-ethic and, after delivering Jane, he stayed in close touch in hopes of some sort of surgical miracle to correct her condition.
The lovely prose in this novel reminded me of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Watson writes, “Leaving the child’s care to her older daughter had made it a little easier for Ida Chisolm to avoid her dark thoughts, though not entirely. When she had a little break, she sat on the front porch, dipped a bit of snuff – which she knew was smallish sinful but did it anyway, a soul was corrupt at birth and adding a little vice wouldn’t change the equation much – and spat into the bare dirt of the yard doing the best she could to empty her clamorous mind. Crows banked about the grove of the pine and hardwood by the cow pond and flew back up on fluff-cranked winds into the pecans near the barn, settling in their gnarly limbs like black fluttering shadows into the foliage of clouded thoughts she could not and did not bother to plumb. Late fall blackbirds swept in waves to the oaks at the yard’s edge, and their deafening, squawking, creaking calls, the cacophonous tuning of a mad avian symphony, drew the grief-born anger from her heart, into the air, and swept it away in long, almost soothing moments of something like peace. The occasional fluid mumuration of migrating starlings, a wondrous sight when she was a child, could evoke in her all over again in a strange sense of foreboding” (51-52). The story continues all the way to the disappearance of Grace, the death of Sylvester, Ida, and finally the last days of Jane Chisolm.
Some might view this last sentence as a “spoiler,” but this is one of those rare books, seeps into the mind of the reader, spreads warmth and sorrow, and ends on a satisfying note. Do not let that stop anyone from reading this novel. There are few things I enjoy more than a great independent bookstore and a proprietor who can read her customers. A trip to Florida is in my future, and after reading Miss Jane by Brad Watson, I will surely seek out Inkwood Books. 5 Stars.