Mon May 18, 2009
The Well and the Mine: A Novel, by Gin Phillips
Those are kinds of novels this is not. What then are the strengths which led Barnes and Noble to make The Well and the Mine a "Discover Great New Writers Selection" and the Alabama Library Association to award it the 2009 prize for fiction? There are several.
By Don Noble
The "well" of the title is the opening site of this fine debut novel. Nine-year-old Tess Moore is sitting alone on the back porch of her home in Carbon Hill, Alabama, in 1931, only a few feet from the family well. A woman walks up in the dark, holding a wrapped-up bundle. "I saw a flash of skin," Tess tells us. "Then she tossed it in. Just like that." At first no one believes Tess; then the dead baby is fished out. The novel for a while becomes a mystery story, as Tess and her sister, Virgie, sleuth around town like a pair of Nancy Drews, but when it is determined that the baby boy was already dead of natural causes, everyone but the two girls loses interest.
So this is not really a mystery novel.
Tess's father works in the mine, now as a safety supervisor, but the mines are none too safe. Albert has over the years suffered a broken jaw, broken both arms and a leg and both ankles, has hurt his back, and is mostly blind in his right eye. He is unnaturally stoical about all this. Albert and others wish the UMW were more powerful and revere John L. Lewis, but the Depression is on and times are too hard for much labor unrest. So this is not in the tradition of the thirties industrial labor protest novel either.
This family is poor, but not actually hungry. Albert owns a little farm and there is always food, if not always meat, on the table. The family is not dysfunctional, which I found a great relief, no, more: a positive treat. Albert and his wife, Leta, love one another and their three children. There is no abuse, overt or neglectful.
Those are kinds of novels this is not. What then are the strengths which led Barnes and Noble to make The Well and the Mine a "Discover Great New Writers Selection" and the Alabama Library Association to award it the 2009 prize for fiction?
There are several.
First, it quietly evokes a particular time and place. Phillips speaks of interviewing family members and others who knew Carbon Hill in the thirties. She wanted to get the food and the underwear right, and accurately depict the exhausting, dangerous and cramped work in the mines. Sometimes the men went for hours without being able to stand up straight.
For a first-time novelist, Phillips also demonstrates some nerve in her narrative delivery system. This story is told from several points of view?Mom, Dad, and the children, Virgie, Tess and Jack?and it works. The voices are distinct and do not all sound alike as is so often the case. The nine-year-old sees and understands differently from her mother and even from her slightly older sister.
Even more courageous, perhaps, is the quietness of the story. There is no hysteria or melodrama, even when events are extraordinary. The baby in the well causes Tess some nightmares, fair enough. But even when Jack is hit by a giant truck hauling bricks, the family remains fairly calm and determined to get through it.
The drama is of their lives is comprised essentially of everyday problems. Virgie, 14 and beautiful, is, as they say "growing up" and boys are coming around. Dad is worried.
Father himself causes some stress when he, decent fellow that he is, wants to invite his black buddy Jonah to dinner, whatever the social or economic consequences. Mom and even Jonah himself see this as a beautiful impulse but a bad idea, and decent people will have to wait another 25 years to sit down to dinner together.
A person who did not like this novel might compare it to The Waltons. But so might a reader who liked it very much.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."