This book is simply a gorgeous piece of writing. It takes place during the early twentieth century in rural Mississippi. The protagonist, Miss Jane, was inspired by the author’s real life aunt who was born with the genital birth defect of having an intersex anatomy.
We follow Jane from her birth to her old age. In all stages of her life the reader will experience strong feelings of affection, sympathy and admiration for Jane; from the age of six when she realizes she wouldn’t be going to school with the other children (her parents didn’t want to submit her to bullying as she would never have control of her bodily wastes), to her first crush on a boy and was told not to encourage the romance (what would happen if it led to marriage?), into her old age when she cruelly learns that there is now, when her days are just about over, a way to surgically correct her condition.
All her life Jane struggles to live as much of a normal existence as possible. She has a strong friend and advocate from the country doctor who delivered her as a baby. Immediately after her birth, he did his best to help calm her shocked parents when he himself had no idea if the baby was a boy or a girl. Thank goodness the doctor guessed the baby is female since as she grew that seems to be her identified gender. His support of Jane continues until his death. When little Jane became old enough to understand that she is different, to help normalize her condition, he explains that mushrooms are not limited to two sexes. She is a bright girl that learned to read with just a little help from her older sister. Her doctor encouraged this by bringing her books. She eventually becomes a self educated woman. Although her main supporter was a simple, country doctor he never stopped reaching out to city doctors and researchers that were more familiar with her situation always hoping to learn if there was any way to “fix” her.
The book is bound to be compared to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Middlesex” written in 2002. I read, and very much enjoyed, that book when it was first published. Personally, I feel that “Middlesex” is more of a Greek tragedy. While “Miss Jane” is more of a bittersweet story about country poverty, exhausted farmers with their children leaving the hard farm life as soon as they are able to escape, as well as, overworked country doctors that rely on cocaine to enable them to get through their almost 24 hour a day work load, usually without pay. And finally, how character and strength are formed in human beings for Jane led a quiet, lonely life that must be described as a sad life, though she refuses to live as a sad person despite her physical limitations and grew into a dignified old woman. As a female reviewer I am always impressed when a male writer can capture the female soul so clearly and beautifully as Watson does in this atypical story.