”Saints should always be judged guilty,” George Orwell wrote, ”until they are proved innocent.” What he meant was that persons who seek perfection usually have little interest in the ruck and moil of the actual world. ”Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints,” Orwell added, ”and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”
That much granted, writing a novel about a saint can be tricky. Particularly when, as in Brett Lott’s Jewel, the martyrdom of one’s heroine is of a purely secular and partly self-imposed kind. Dedicated to the author’s mother, ”the true jewel, Myrtis Jewel Purvis Lott,” the third novel by this accomplished author (The Man Who Owned Vermont, A Stranger’s House) tells the story of a woman’s courageous struggle to make a decent life for her sixth and youngest child, born a ”Mongolian Idiot” in the piney woods of southern Mississippi during World War II.
Early in her pregnancy, Jewel Hilburn receives a mysterious prophecy. Its source is a servant named Cathedral, the novel’s obligatory source of black folk wisdom — quaintly and invariably designated a ”niggerwoman” in the novel’s first-person voice. ”I say unto you,” Cathedral warns, ”that the baby you be carrying be yo’ hardship, be yo’ test in this world. This be my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel.”
From the moment a New Orleans specialist gives her infant daughter’s affliction a name, Jewel becomes a woman with a mission. Orphaned as a teenager herself, with bitter memories of the Mississippi Industrial School for Girls, she is determined to give little Brenda Kay as normal a childhood as her limited means will allow.
Jewel means to persevere. Even if it means half-abandoning her other children, which it does. Even if it means the emotional abandonment of her husband, Leston, which it does. Even if it means picking up and moving the whole clan from Mississippi to Los Angeles, where Leston, to his everlasting shame and mortification, has to do janitorial work. ”I got the position I do,” Leston tells her in a rare burst of bitter candor, ”because it’s a nigger job, and I was the only white boy willing to do it.”
Easy now. No need to be offended. The whole point of all this racial stuff is to give Miss Jewel the chance to display her moral superiority. After all, + she learns to say ”colored.” Leston never does. The problem with the whole novel, however, is that it reads like the longest Redbook story in the world. Long before the end, what’s clearly intended to be a moving tribute to its heroine’s indomitable spirit and bottomless capacity for love instead becomes an enervating and somewhat ominous display of willpower taken to the edge of obsession. It’s hard to shed a sympathetic tear for the sound of Miss Jewel’s teeth grinding. B