Monday, August 10, 2009

Review: The Well and the Mine

Fannie Flagg said about Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine, “When you close the book, you’ll miss these characters.” And she was right; I didn’t want to stop reading! I fell in love with these characters so much that I was sad to leave them as I finished the last page.

Set in rural Alabama (Carbon Hill, to be precise) in 1931, this book is more a snapshot of the era and setting than anything else, but Phillips makes the reader fall in love with the characters who are giving you this picture. The story is told through the Moore family: Albert, Leta, and their children—Virgie, Tess, and Jack. The book opens with Tess, the younger of the two daughters, witnessing a woman throw a baby down their well. From then on, Tess and Virgie are on a mission to find out who the woman was.

But don’t get caught up in thinking this story is just a mystery; the baby in well only serves as an overarching motif that runs throughout the book. The real meat of the story is the day-to-day thoughts and actions of the Moore family as we get to know the heart and soul of each of the five characters.

Albert has mined coal all his life. There’s not much else to do in Carbon Hill, Alabama—it’s what fuels the economy. Leta is his hardworking, yet compassionate wife, and their love is solid, yet subtly displayed. Their eldest daughter, Virgie, has hit adolescence, and though she has a stunning beauty, she is thoughtful and timid. Tess is the outspoken one of the family—a nine-year-old that is always looking for adventure. And Jack is the youngest at seven, a bit ornery but with a positive nature. Families don’t get much closer than the Moores, and their loyalty has no end.

Beyond the personalities, there’s so much more to the picture painted by Phillips. Race and poverty…these issues are woven into the narrative without being overtly addressed. It gives a realistic enough tone that I feel like I knew how life was in the South during the Depression.

The narrative alternatives perspectives of each of the five family members, and the changes were quick and frequent. Some readers may get annoyed with it, but I loved the way it kept the story moving. I felt like I got to know each character equally as well. I especially loved the purpose of Jack’s voice. While the rest of the characters spoke in present-tense, Jack’s voice was from the future and more reminiscent. While reading, I found myself desperate to know what was going to happen to all of these characters once the story ended, and Jack appeased my curiosity by letting us know how some things turn out. It’s such a subtle change in time perspective that you barely realize it’s happening, and I assure you that you’ll appreciate it.

This is Gin Phillips’ debut novel, and she certainly started strong! It’s quite a feat to get Fannie Flagg, reigning Queen of Southern Lit, to write an introduction, and for this novel, it is well deserved. I highly recommend The Well and the Mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from this talented author.


Salvatore said…

For a first novelist, and a living novelist, it's quite wild that someone did indeed write an introduction, and Fannie Flagg of all people. I'm very curious as to why that happened.

Glad it was a good read. It sounds like Faulkner territory too.

Kari said…

It was quite good. I'm trying to find out more about the author, but there's not too much out there!

bermudaonion said…

I really want to read this one. I love books set in the South and when they're set someplace familiar to me (I've lived in Alabama twice) it's an added bonus.

Kari said…

I agree! I felt like I knew the landscape from all my long drives from TN through Alabama to the Gulf Coast.

Rose City Reader said…

I just finished this book. I thought it was great. Here is my review on Rose City Reader.

If you would like me to add a link to your review, please leave a comment on my review post and I will add it.