The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips

The Well and the MineGin Phillips has written a book so wise it’s hard to believe it’s her debut novel. The Well and the Mine is a story about the people in a small mining town in Alabama during the Great Depression.

While things are difficult enough for this hard-scrabble mining community, the Depression increases the strain on many families nearly to the breaking point.

That’s where the Moore family comes in. While a poor family like the rest, the Moores are lucky to have a bit of farm land and are able to raise chickens, have a cow, and grow fruits and vegetables. Led by the father, Albert, the family never refuses to give food to anyone who comes knocking at the door in need. It isn’t until the young daughter, Tess, watches a shadowy figure throw a baby down their well that the Moore family – particularly Tess and her sister Virgie – begins to see the people all around them as having real lives of their own.

Determined to discover the woman who threw the baby in, Tess and Virgie devise a plan to interview the women in town whom they believe to be the most likely suspects. Lola Lowe emerges at the top of the list because she is extremely poor and already has many children. The lack of subtlety in their visit to her (they never had before) causes hurt feelings and shame for the Lowe family and makes Virgie realize how insensitive they’ve been.

Indeed, the people who populate the Moore’s town become increasingly real through the course of the novel, which is told in the alternating voices of Tess, Virgie, Albert, the mother, Leta, and young son Jack. However, it is a sixth character in the novel, Jonah, a black man who works beside Albert in the mines, who provides the “voice” for a rich underlying theme – that of racism in the segregated South long before the civil rights era.

Albert and Jonah have a strong intellectual kinship, but cultural taboos restrict the level of their relationship. Albert is keen to know Jonah better and goes as far as inviting him and his wife to dinner (much to the horror of Leta). It is an invitation, alas, that Jonah cannot and will not accept.

On so many levels, The Well and the Mine gets below the surface of the characters who populate this small mining town. It is a journey that is as illuminating as it is satisfying for the reader. An excellent book club choice.

Penguin; ISBN 978-1-5944-8449-0; $15.
The Well and the Mine: Reading Guide

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