Watson, Brad (author).
July 2016. 224p. Norton, hardcover, $25.95 (9780393241730); Norton, e-book (9780393285444).
REVIEW. First published September 20, 2016 (Booklist Online).
In rural Mississippi in 1915, country doctor Ed Thompson is fairly certain that the child born to Sylvester and Ida Chisholm—sure to be their last—is a girl. But a strange formation of key parts leads him to do further research before reporting back with certainty, tempering what was already a rather uncelebrated birth, unplanned and late in the Chisholms’ lives. With luck and some surprise, baby Jane’s condition—the use of a common channel for all bodily eliminations—causes her no infant sickness, and she thrives into girlhood. Cared for by her sister, Grace, 10 years her senior and aggrieved by her duties, Jane is good natured and brave, curious and sunny in her generally dour family. She soon understands her uniqueness, and that she isn’t likely to ever be cured of it, and she learns strategies to accommodate and later conceal the bodily functions she can’t control. After an attempt at formal schooling among her peers, Jane opts instead for learning through deep observation of life: human, of course, but also the goings-on of the plants and animals on her family’s land. She grows strong in herself. The ultimate witness to the sexual world, Jane is at first deeply affected by her outsider status. Eventually though, as the novel spans Jane’s entire life, the pain of her existence becomes a sweet one, until “the fact of her body” is no longer a nuisance at all. Watson’s story is inspired by a great aunt who had a similar condition and explores the questions of what defines normalcy, humanity, and love. His narrative, which closely follows Jane, the gruff father who’s only tender with her, and the wise, warm doctor who becomes her closest companion, is affecting, nature-bound, and grounded in its glory