For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Great Depression

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, New York: Riverhead Books, 2007, 290 pp.

The Well and the MineFollowing 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.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin, 1940, 359 pp.

Heart is a Lonely HunterSomehow, I made it through an English major with multiple courses and a lifetime devotion to southern literature without reading Carson McCullers. My last trip to the library, I decided to rectify that vacancy in my knowledge. I want to say that I am glad I did, which is true, but The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was full of such pathos and sorrow that it feels ingenuous to associate reading it with anything resembling joy. Beauty, truth, the human spirit, artistry—yes. Gladness, however, is in short supply.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the story about loneliness and isolation, as situated in a small Massachusetts mill town in the Great Depression. The central character is John Singer, a deaf-mute, whose best friend, roommate and fellow deaf-mute has a breakdown and his family sends him to an asylum. Singer loses the only person with whom he can communicate openly, and he is thrust into silence.

The four other characters in the story are equally lonely, but each find their way to Singer and find in him someone who listens to them (he reads lips). Mick Kelly, a young teen girl whose parents run the boarding house, aspires to leave the shabby mill town and see the world. She has a gift for music that goes undeveloped because she had no access to a piano or lessons—only living for the occasional presence of a radio. Doctor Benedict Macy Copeland is the most educated man in town, and black. His education separates him from the African-American community that makes up his patients, and his race separates him from everyone else. His strictly-held political ideas about how to advance the good of his race have even alienated him from his wife and children. Jake Blount is a mechanic with a head full of ideas about Marxism and revolution. He visits with fellow laborers trying to get them to understand, but he presents as a blowhard and his frustration only grows that he cannot find anyone who can understand as he does. Biff Brannon owns the local café where Singer and Blount dine nightly. After the death of his wife, the business begins to fall apart around him, while he stands at the counter and watches other people’s lives and conversations, always apart from relationship with them.

Singer’s silent presence makes them feel as though they are not alone, as though someone listens and understands and cares about them. They begin to visit his room in the boarding house, pouring out their hearts and concerns in his silence. Singer does not find companionship in them, because they cannot read his sign language, but they find solace in him. As the novel unfolds, the reader hopes the four people coming to Singer might find companionship in one another—Blount and Copeland plotting together for revolution, Brannon’s compassion for Mick Kelly opening a way for her to escape her poverty.

Sadly, this story is not hopeful. Its ending is as sad and lonely as its beginning. Perhaps this is the reality of the world, which is regularly cruel and pointless—but I’ll admit to desiring a bit more hope in my novels most of the time, even if it’s only pretend. Sometimes, though, I turn to a novel because I feel sad and need to find a way to dive more deeply into that dark place. McCullers does that just beautifully, presenting the pathos and isolation of this world with grace and subtlety. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s a sorrowful glimpse into the loneliness of the world. It left me with my sadness, but what a beautiful sorrow it is. There is joy in that recognition.

*Side Note: I got behind in writing reviews of what I have been reading, so I caught up by writing these three novel reviews in a row, for All the Living, The Lost Mother and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I realized in doing so that all three of them are stories about people grappling with profound loneliness and isolation. I would not describe myself as lonely right now, but I am certainly contemplating what would draw me to these three books in a three week period.

The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking, 2005, 274 pp.

Lost MotherI keep going to the library and checking out Mary McGarry Morris books, but never getting around to reading them before they are due. (This is what happens when you are a book addict. I can’t leave a library with less than 10 books at a time. Three weeks isn’t long enough to read that many novels, along with my professional reading.) I’m so grateful to have finally made it into this one, and next time I won’t return them unread.

The Lost Mother is the story of the Talcott children surviving the hardship of the Great Depression in Vermont. When the story begins, Thomas and Margaret are living in a tent in the woods, because they have lost their home to debt. Their father Henry works butchering farm animals, but work is scarce and money even more scarce. The loss of their home, however, is a minor inconvenience compared to the searing loss of their mother, who simply abandoned her family, moved to a mill town, and started a new life. The children initially believe she has left to support them and will return when times improve, but slowly they are forced to confront the truth of her abandonment.

There are a host of other characters in the book who step in to take responsibility for Thomas and Margaret, either by choice or by force. The wealthy, greedy Farleys want to take Margaret and make her their own daughter, separating her from her family forever. Aunt Lena (their mother’s sister) and Uncle Max do not want to take the children in, and their alcoholism makes it an unsafe place for the children to be. Gladys is their father’s lifelong friend. She would step in to care for them, and does what she can, but she is caring for her ailing father, whose abuse for the children makes them unable to stay there.

The story is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. Thomas and Margaret have people who want to care for them, but can’t; people who want to own them, but are thwarted; and people who could care for them, but won’t. The plot unfolds as they spend a full year making their way from one terrible situation to another. As a parent, I wonder what it would be like to know you are unable to provide for your children. No one in the story is demonized for failing the children—it is just the way things are. The narrator most often tells the story from Thomas’ perspective, and we watch him grow from a child’s view to a wizened adult one through the course of the story’s one single year.

The Lost Mother was a fast read, and a great story. It left me pondering the millions of children all over the world who are alone in this world. Thomas and Margaret’s story is not unique. Just this week, there have been multiple news stories of unaccompanied children warehoused in terrible conditions having been picked up crossing the border illegally. What is it like to be a child alone in this harsh world? Morris’ novel imagines it in one time and one place, with sorrow and with hope.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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