Book Review: The Well and the Mine
Posted November 22, 2014on:
The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, New York: Riverhead Books, 2007, 290 pp.
Following on the heels of The Funeral Dress, I guess I’ve just been in the mood for fiction of life in Appalachian coal mining towns. I wanted more of that spirit. While The Well and the Mine takes place in Alabama in the 1931, the scene and characters bare a strong resemblance and I enjoyed this book a great deal.
The Well and the Mine is the story of the Moore family. Father Albert works in the mine, mother Leta tends the home. Daughter Virgie is entering her teen years, daughter Tess is in the heart of her childhood, and brother Jack is the youngest. Each character takes turns at the narration, a technique accomplished with a short section break and a tiny, italicized indication of the new name in the indent of the new paragraph. At first, this felt convoluted and unnecessary, but it smoothed out once I became familiar with the characters, their voices and concerns. By the end, I appreciated the multiple perspectives.
The core mystery of the story is what happened at the Moore’s home on a summer night, when Tess witnessed a woman throwing a baby down the family’s well. The family and the town are horrified, and the story follows Virgie and Tess as they conduct their own investigation. Their inquiries and discoveries open their eyes to the struggles of those around them. While they are poor by any modern standards, their family’s small plot of land place them in a much more stable, well-fed position than many of their neighbors. Virgie and Tess move from anger and horror at the baby in the well to compassion and empathy for the woman who finds herself in such terrible circumstances.
However, what drives the book is not the plot, but the evocation of the characters and setting. As Fannie Flagg says in her blurb on the back, this book “gives you a whole world.” Phillips invites readers to a 1931 coal mining town. She describes the daily grind inside the coal mine, and what it does to Albert’s strong body. She gives an intricate tour of the family’s simple home, complete with the outhouse and animal dwellings in the yard. She contrasts their home with the homes of sharecroppers and African-Americans and company-owned houses. She reveals the smallness of that world, when the family goes to Birmingham, and the way segregation impacts relationships. The reader gets to see this world through the eyes of the characters, for whom it is everyday and ordinary.
I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that the characters are simply good people in tough circumstances. There are no evil enemies, just a collection of circumstances and people coming together as a community to manage them. Some are more privileged than others, but no one is living well. Their only hope of survival is treating one another with some measure of kindness, compassion and mutuality–even when someone does something as disturbing as throw a baby in a well.