One of my May phaves was Pamela Morsi's Wild Oats, the first book of hers that I'd read. Wendy first reviewed Wild Oats and a commenter mentioned Simple Jess as another Morsi classic worth reading, so when I saw a used copy available on Amazon, I ordered it. This is such an unconventional romance that I felt positively compelled to talk about it.
In a nutshell, SJ is a story set in the small, isolated mountain community of Marrying Stone (in the Ozarks?) in 1906. Largely untouched by the outside world, the community governs itself, even to the extent of intruding upon the individual, personal decisions of its members. When the town decides that a young widow, Althea, must remarry, she is given 3 weeks to decide who she will pick to marry. Althea owns a farm in a favorable location and she is trying to preserve it for her young son. She is highly resistant to the idea of remarriage because she fears her son would be shunted aside by his new step-father. It turns out Althea herself had suffered something similar when her father remarried after her mother's death and largely abandoned Althea in favor of his new family.
As part of her attempt to handle her farm on her own, Althea hires Jesse (Simple Jess) Best to do various heavy chores around the farm. She will give him her late husband's hunting dogs in exchange for him helping her to get ready for the winter. In 21st century terms, we would say that Jess is developmentally disabled. We learn that he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, so he was oxygen-deprived for a short while during his birth. People of 1906 didn't understand that--they assumed he had "bad blood." And while Jesse is slow to reason things out and needs help remembering some things, he is handsome, strong, and capable. He has always admired Althea and is happy to have a chance to help her while he earns the prized hunting dogs.
As Jesse works around the farm, both Althea and her son Baby-Paisley grow attached to Jesse and are able to appreciate that even if he is slow mentally, he is perfectly normal when it comes to other important character traits. Jesse patiently teaches things to Baby Paisley the same repetitious way they were taught to him. Jesse is honest and kind and Althea responds to this. It confuses her at first, because it seems wrong to have feelings for someone you've always considered a child trapped in a man's body. Eventually, of course, Althea sees that Jesse is a whole man and perhaps not so "simple" after all.
This book is really more than a romance. It's a slice-of-life look at a different time and place that few of us could ever relate to. There are several secondary characters that we get to know quite well, so the focus of the book is not exclusively on Jesse and Althea. Most striking is the notion that the community of Marrying Stone can force Althea to remarry against her wishes. Our 21st century sensibilities rebel at the thought that individual choices and desires must be suppressed at the whim of the community. But in an era when people succumbed so easily to disease, no doubt the local economy counted on Althea maintaining her farm and keeping her son safe and well so he could survive childhood. This would not be something Althea could do on her own. Remarriage is a natural conclusion and while Althea sets conditions on her remarriage, she does not try to find a way out of the town's decree.
I found this to be a fascinating read as I considered the ideas of individuality versus community. My notion of a "hero" was turned on its head by the concept of Jesse who was strong in all the ways that mattered. There's a point near the end when Jesse and Althea become intimate and Althea realizes that she'll have to take the lead. Althea is the "alpha heroine" in this book and I really appreciate that juxtaposition against the way we normally think of heroines.
This is a finely crafted book that's quite outside the ordinary. My thanks to my blogging friends who recommended this to me. And here is my copy of the book:
Would you like to have it? I'm over-run with books and I'd like to pass this on and share the love. Leave a comment and I'll randomly choose a winner on Saturday. I'll ship world-wide.