Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi

September 23, 2013 Historical, Reviews 12

Book cover for Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. It has the author's name and book title in white in a curlicued font on a blue, purple and pink background along with different kinds of tree leaves. Very 90s looking.This is a repost of a review I posted years ago on Goodreads. I thought I’d post it here to show that it is possible to write a romance with a disabled character that I loved.

Widowed mother Althea Winsloe just wants to be left alone to raise her young son as she sees fit. Unfortunately for her, the men and women of her tight-knit village in the Ozarks are determined to see her remarried, and soon. Determined to remain in control, she plans to sell her husband’s well-respected pack of hunting hounds. No one’s going to just marry her and take what’s hers, she’s saving everything on the farm for her son to inherit one day.
In the general store when Miss Althea discloses her plan to sell her hounds, Jesse Best chases after her to try to buy a dog from her. Nearly strangled by his umbilical cord when he was born, leaving him with intellectual disabilities, he’s known as “Simple Jess” to the townfolk. An honest man and hard worker, he’s nonetheless often taken advantage of for his lack of wit or logic. He’s a simple man, and he wants three things in life – a dog, a gun and a woman.

Seeing an opportunity, Althea makes a bargain with Jess. He can earn all the dogs by working on her farm to get her set for the coming winter. Wanting to earn a living like a man, and excited to own his own hunting dogs, Jess eagerly accepts.

This is the one book I’ve read that’s truly captured the truth of disability. Jess was a fabulous character in that he was nothing special. He was only intractably different in other people’s minds. He wasn’t an inspiration to others, he was just a man whose brain didn’t work quite right, but went about his life doing things his own way.

When the story is told from his perspective, there’s no angst or drama from him on his otherness. He regrets that other people treat him bad or take advantage of him, and wishes that he could keep up with other people’s thinking, but he doesn’t see that as making him less than anyone else. He just works hard to do right the things he can do. When we read the story from his perspective, it’s colored with a sense of wonder and confusion. The prose changes a bit to reflect his simpler thinking but without bogging the narrative down in awkward sentence construction or excess dialect. You see less rumination on other people’s motives and more of him repeating things to himself so he won’t forget.

I loved Althea as well. She’s a strong woman determined to spare her son the drama she went through when her widower father remarried. She’s reluctant to marry again and have her new husband slight the son that isn’t his own blood. The more she works with Jess, the more she begins to appreciate a man who works hard but isn’t afraid to defer to someone else’s judgement when he should.

Thankfully, the book avoids a common pitfall of books dealing with disability and there’s not so much as a hint of charity in Althea’s relationship with Jess. Loving him doesn’t make her a better person, it makes her a happy person. She genuinely values what he can contribute and is happy to compensate for his weaknesses. Bit by bit throughout the novel we see the many things she has a newfound appreciation for once she sees him as a man.

And thank goodness, because pity sex is just pathetic. When these two finally get together it’s anything but charitable. Their first kiss is equal parts sweet, passionate and awkward. Jess’s inexperience is tempered by his blunt honesty, and having a man plainly say how much a woman drives him mad is hot, hot.

As strong as the main couple is, and as much as I love the treatment of disability, I think the secondary characters might make the novel. The town of Marrying Stone is populated with a wide variety of characters and none of them are cardboard placeholders. Even antagonists Eben Baxley and Oather Phillips have rich backgrounds and nuanced personalities, giving the marrying plot more depth and drama. Althea and Jesse are made even more vivid by the rich characters that surround them and the colorful conversations they have with them.

Final Assessment: Simple Jess was a pleasure to read and I’d recommend it unreservedly to anyone who loves an emotional, character-focused read. A

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An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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12 Responses to “Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi”

  1. Shanon

    Thanks. I’ll have to check this out. I think a romance with a disabled character would be a stretch for me. Love this blog

  2. willaful

    Great review, Ridley. And have you read the first book, btw? It’s largely a bromance between the hero and Jess, which is pretty charming.

    I tried another romance with a mentally disabled character and it turned me right off. It was like reading about a child. This was very different, thank goodness.

    And even though my son is highly intelligent and has no problems reading, the dedication always moves me to tears.

  3. Roslyn Holcomb

    This book is on my “School” shelf. The books I return to when I feel I need a primer on story craft or character development. Morsi is one of my all-time faves and IMO one of the top character developers writing today. I love this book ever so much, though I’d never really looked at it from a disability angle.

  4. Liz Mc2

    @Roslyn Holcomb: Oh, I love the idea of a “School” shelf. Now I want to ask authors what would be on theirs. I wonder if I can make this happen?

    This is another book on my mental TBR (actually, I think it’s on my virtual TBR, as in I already own it). Thanks for the review, Ridley!

  5. Ridley

    @willaful: I just bought Marrying Stone with the Kobo coupon. Such a deal.

    @Liz Mc2: You get great discussions on your blog. I bet if you asked authors that question you’d end up with great answers.

    @Roslyn Holcomb: This may be my favorite portrayal of disability in romance. It’s a really strong example. If anyone’s looking to see it done right, they should read this book.

  6. Laura Vivanco

    I’m very relieved you wrote that “This is the one book I’ve read that’s truly captured the truth of disability.” I really liked it, and I’ve been working on it for the past couple of months. Unfortunately, the only other academic who’s written about it took a rather negative view of its depiction of disability. I disagree with her take on the book, but unlike her I don’t have a background in disability studies so I felt at a bit of a disadvantage. Knowing it’s got your endorsement makes me feel a lot more confident about disagreeing with her.

  7. Ridley

    @Laura Vivanco: Oh, yeah, I don’t agree with most of her points.

    I could concede that the HEA is somewhat ableist, since much of his value to the heroine is tied up in his physical ability, but he’s every bit as intellectually disabled at the end as he was at the beginning. Althea’s love doesn’t make him any smarter, it makes her more patient and understanding. I don’t think adapting to a disability equates with erasure or rehabilitation.

    I guess the contrast between good, kind, “simple” Jess and the clever, lying Eben could also be problematic if you look at that as saying intellectually disabled people are purer souls and innocent as babies. I thought Jess was a good guy because he was a good kid from a loving family, which Eben wasn’t, IIRC. But the other interpretation also makes sense, too, and may even be what Morsi intended.

    Nothing’s set in granite, I guess.

  8. Laura Vivanco

    @Ridley: Yes, it’s all open to interpretation to some extent.

    The way I read the book, though, Jesse seemed fairly shrewd. He is good, but I don’t think it’s because he’s innocent.

    Thinking a bit more about whether “the HEA is somewhat ableist, since much of his value to the heroine is tied up in his physical ability,” I think the situation’s complicated by the fact that sexual love does tend to involve appreciation of bodies and desire for physical contact so there will always be an extent to which (for people who are not asexual) a beloved’s value is tied up with their physical attractions (although that, too, is complicated by the fact that once someone falls in love, they may find their beloved more physically attractive just because they love them).

    The other context in which Althea appreciates Jesse’s physical ability relates to farming and hunting and Morsi isn’t saying that only ablebodied people can hunt and/or farm: Jesse’s father has a physical disability but he does both. I imagine that if Jesse had had both an intellectual and a physical disability, he’d have worked too.