Sunday, September 2, 2012

What's Best for Jane by Bett Norris

Publisher:       Bywater Books 

What’s Best for Jane is the sequel to Bett Norris’ earlier novel Miss McGhee.  Ten years before Mary McGhee shocked the town by taking over control of the town mill, fighting for civil rights for African Americans and starting a relationship with Lila DuBois.  She established herself as a controversial person and, while that hasn’t changed, in this book many things have. 

Mary is alone after Lila’s tragic death and she is a shell of the person portrayed in the first book.  She seems content to spend her days sitting on her porch, drinking tea and often fighting with Lila’s brother Jimmy Jackson and his wife.  Mary appears to be marking time to an uneventful death until she meets Lila’s niece Jane.  Jane looks like her aunt, but more importantly, unlike the rest of her family, she shows great promise for the future if she can only get an opportunity.  Mary makes the goal of her life to educate, nurture and provide for Jane.  Jane may look like Lila, but she often acts like Mary and has her own streak of independent stubbornness. The book covers eight years as this unlikely pair, an old lonely woman and a lonely precocious child, struggle to determine who really knows what is best for Jane.

Bett Norris has a gift for capturing the feel of a small Southern town.  The reader can almost feel the heat radiating from the pages and smell the honeysuckle blooming.  There is a languid pace for the book that matches the region.  For those who read the first book, this one may be a sad story.  This Miss McGhee has lost her spirit since Lila’s death and seems to enjoy being the town curmudgeon.  When her relationship with Jane proceeds in a dangerous direction, she is so disconnected from life that she fails to see its implications at first.

The best developed character is Jane.  When the story opens she is a ten year old girl who avoids   the harshness of her life by escaping into books.  Though her family life is extremely difficult, she understands her responsibility to them and is willing to stand up to Mary to defend them.  By the end of the book, Jane is ready to attend college and escape the narrowness of the town.  As she has matured, she has provided Mary with a purpose and a challenge.  As Mary descends into her final days, she does it with a sense of regret that she won’t see the final product that Jane will become, but confident that she has given Jane the opportunity for a new life that Lila would have wanted for her.

What’s Best for Jane is one of those books that subliminally speaks to deep issues while the reader believes she is just reading a story.   It covers a number of topics – intolerance, family dynamics, the grief of loss, and the hope of the future.  Norris doesn’t lecture however.  She reveals.

The book does present the reader with a conundrum.  The personalities of Mary McGhee presented in the two related books are so different that it may be difficult to reconcile them, although people do change as they age.  Some of the references in the second book go back to the first one and may not tell the reader enough to know why they are important.  So, the question is, should Miss McGhee be read before What’s Best for Jane?  It probably isn’t, but to do so could enhance the experience.  They’re both very good books, so reading them is no loss.

What’s Best for Jane isn’t standard lesbian fare.  In fact, lesbianism is a small part of the story and it could appeal just as easily to lesbian or straight readers.  It is well written and tells an interesting story, so it’s easy to recommend it.  Be prepared for a gentle, yet moving experience.

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