Eugene Weekly : Books : 2.28.08

Southern Discomfort
Small-town Alabama during the Great Depression

THE WELL AND THE MINE, fiction by Gin Phillips. Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2008. Paperback, $15.95.

Carbon Hill, Alabama, in Gin’ Phillips lovely novel The Well and the Mine, is a place full of scents, textures, darkness and warmth. Jasmine and lavender twine outside the Moore family home; inside, Leta Moore mixes biscuits, telling by touch when the dough is ready, or puts up jars of pickles and preserves. Her husband Albert works in the nearby mine, where the color of a man’s skin is invisible in the darkness. And her three children —?Jack, the littlest; Tess, the imaginative middle child; and Virgie, the beautiful eldest — work and play, study and grow, life a normal thing of giving and helping, learning and laughing. But one night, sitting on the back porch in the dark, smelling cornbread and the family garden, Tess sees a strange thing: A woman throws a baby down the family’s well.

“After she threw the baby in, no one believed me for the longest time,” Tess begins the book, which the family members narrate in turn. Albert speaks less than his chattery children, and Jack, barely bigger than a baby, tends to speak looking backwards from his future, which gives us a look at the Moore family decades down the line. But welcome as those glimpses are, The Well and the Mine is settled firmly and beautifully in the then of 1931 Alabama, of coal miners working long hours, boys walking girls home from church, mothers who work as hard in the kitchen as their husbands do in the mines and sheriffs who’ll pick up a black man just because he’s black. Racial tensions (and to a lesser degree class tensions) are threaded through Phillips’ book with grace; Albert knows his colleague Jonah (who’s black) is a man just like he is, but he’s wrestling with the expectations and beliefs of the rest of the town, and perhaps within his own family.

When the baby is fished out of the well, the Moore family’s world is cracked just enough to let doubt in, to shift each member’s view of their small town and their particular lives. Tess, who has nightmares about the baby, wants to know who did it, to solve the mystery of the woman whose face she couldn’t see, and to understand whether the woman was evil or bad. Virgie wants to help Tess, but she’s more worried about whether growing up, getting married and having children could do that to a woman — could make her throw her baby in the well. Albert, in the time he has for thought when he’s not working until he can barely stand up, thinks more about people and how they are, how they treat each other. And Leta, who sometimes doesn’t eat so there will be more for the kids, who involves herself deeply in her housework and can’t stand gossip, prunes the roses that remind her of her sisters and thinks about family.

In its different voices and the effect of one event on a whole family, The Well and the Mine is faintly reminiscent of Ali Smith’s fantastic The Accidental, but the similarity is short-lived. Smith’s novel was a dazzler, an acrobatic display of literary flair, where Phillips’ is gentle and engrossing, creating a small Southern town so vividly described that it seems familiar somehow. It’s a shock for the reader, like it is for Tess and Virgie, when the family has to go to Birmingham near the book’s end. There’s more to the world than the girls can wrap their heads around, but seeing just a part of it opens them to endless possibilities. There is life outside Carbon Hill, outside the endless work of home and family, but there’s joy in those familiar things as well. Phillips’ atmospheric novel is full of love and depth, as are her characters, these loving, ordinary folks, and the lives they staunchly continue to lead despite unforseeable events and their inevitable, sometimes entirely internal, consequences.

Gin Phillips celebrates the release of The Well and the Mine at 8 pm Friday, Feb. 29, at Portland’s Press Club; reads at 7 pm Monday, March 3, at Powell’s, Beaverton; and reads at 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 4, at Annie Bloom’s Books, Portland.