By: Gin Phillips
Reviewed by: Beth H. Wilder
Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, 2007
The opening paragraph of Gin Phillip’s debut novel, The Well and the Mine, is only two sentences long, but those two sentences hook readers immediately and pull them into an unforgettable tale of small-town southern life during the hard knock days of the Great Depression. This haunting book opens with a mysterious woman throwing a baby down a well, but it is so much more than a “who-done-it” suspense story. It is a moving chronicle of a close-knit family and their joys and sorrows, a horrific crime that consumes a town, the racial tensions that are building among the citizens, and a nine-year-old girl’s attempt to understand it all.
Set in the North Alabama mining town of Carbon Hill during 1931, the story centers around the Moore family, a hard-working clan that fares better than most during the Depression. Though nine-year-old Tess is the feature character, Phillips carefully tells the story through the eyes of each of the five members of the Moore family, allowing a glimpse of how each person is affected differently by the crime. The Moores are good church-going folks who are always willing to help any neighbor in need, be they black or white. But the reality of a dead baby forces them to confront a darker side of humanity, even a darker side of themselves.
Phillips avoids sentimentality and nostalgia in this tale of a long-forgotten, simpler time. Instead, she quietly immerses the reader in a more realistic, less idealistic world where good and evil co-exist, where good people sometimes do bad things, and where nothing is ever black and white. Her characters are beautifully developed, slowly and carefully through the nuances of their actions and their own words. Phillips never shoves anything in the reader’s face. She simply lays it all out on the table for everyone to see, juxtaposing the danger of a coalminer’s life and the pain of poverty and hunger with the simple joys of sitting on the front porch on a summer evening drinking sweet tea and savoring the luxury of a penny piece of candy.
Wells and mines are dark, scary places, and Phillips is willing to take the reader there. But she always brings them back. The Well and the Mine examines the darkness of the human spirit, but it does so with humor and poignancy. It is a superb first novel.
Beth H. Wilder is a freelance writer in Birmingham.