I so desperately wish that I had taken the time to write the review of Gin Phillips' The Well and the Mine the moment I finished it. My first impulse upon finishing it was simply to thank Phillips for writing such a fine book, which is odd, because that sort of thing is never something that is at the forefront of my mind. It's a brilliant debut and the sort of book that makes reading other more mediocre books oh-so-difficult, and I wish that I'd reviewed it when it was fresher in my mind. Nonetheless, I'm going to give the review my best shot and hope that it conveys just how much I fell in love with this book despite the fact that many have probably already done it and done it better.
Set in a 1930s Alabama coal town, The Well and the Mine is the story of the Moore family. They are neither very well off nor especially destitute relative to their neighbors. Supported by the father, Albert's, work in the coal mines, the Moores have enough to get by and are content with what they have. Albert has an enviable certainty about what is right and wrong that anchors the whole family as well as a before-his-time conviction that there shouldn't be anything wrong with having his black co-worker over to dinner in an era when such an action couldn't have been more scandalous.
To Papa, good was something you could hold in your hand. Hard and solid like coal rock. You could weigh it, measure it, see its beginning and end.... There was something comforting to that, knowing what he wanted, what he expected, and knowing what would disappoint him. But it meant lots of times there was no point in talking to him, because he knew his own mind so well that he didn't need to know yours.
When Albert met his wife, Leta, he was enchanted first by her hair, but then also by an uncanny foreknowledge that she would be the perfect wife and mother. Leta cares for her family with hard work, love, and self-sacrifice so elusive that her husband and children are hard-pressed to notice that she passed up that biscuit so one of them could have seconds. Albert and Leta have three children: Virgie, who is coming into her teenage years grounded, practical, and so pretty that she's nearly inapproachable, not that that keeps the boys from trying; precocious, imaginative Tess; and the youngest, Jack. They are a better than average family living an average life until the summer night when an unknown woman drops a baby into their well. Soon all five members of the Moore family are taking a second look at the world beyond their front door, looking beneath the mostly tranquil surface of their community, and questioning all their assumptions about their neighbors and the world in which they live.
I wondered how I really saw her that first night and how much was me shaping that memory, patting it down until it was tidy. For years I thought of her sweetness as written there in the darkness of her eyes, the softness of her mouth. Remembered - imagined? - that from that first night, I knew her small hands would mend a pain in my neck as sure as a swig of whiskey, that the crook of her elbow would fit a baby like God had carved it purely for that purpose.
Phillips is a great writer in the vein of Andrea Levy (Small Island) and Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) whose plots may not race along with an insane fervor but whose characters leap off the page, each with their own unique voice, and whose writing is so crisp and vivid that readers can't help but savor every word and the scenes those words bring to life. Each member of the Moore family narrates this pivotal time in their lives so distinctly that readers will hardly need indicators of which character is narrating. Each finds him or herself mulling over the big issues in the wake of the incident with the baby, contemplating wealth and poverty, whiteness and blackness, and even how much one can truly know and understand another person and their reasons for doing what they do. All of this is done with such vulnerability and subtlety that it never seems preachy but makes readers consider some of the same big questions that come with being human and interacting with people who are each going through their struggles that we might not understand but might hope to sympathize with nonetheless.
There was ugliness to it, too, I didn't miss that, but church was full of ugly things - blood and crucifixion and thorns and swords and ears lopped off - that were part of God's perfect plan.
The Well and the Mine is a beautiful To Kill a Mockingbird-esque book about salt of the earth decent sorts of people whose love for each other and respect for their neighbors is tangible, if unspoken, dealing with hard times and learning a lot about themselves and their neighbors in the process. A real gem of a book paved with so many perfect moments that I can do no justice, so you'll just have to read it yourself. And I hope you do.
Papa wouldn't complain to the brick company. He said what's done is done. (His eyes were red, which the mines brung about sometimes, but instead of making them look uglier, it made the blue seem brighter.) He squatted down next to me and told me Jack had been hurt real bad, and for a while all I could think was that his eyes were like sky and roses.
Oh, and Gin Phillips, if you happen to read this....thanks. =)
Read other reviews at...
The Magic Lasso
Books and Cooks
Thoughts of Joy
Five Borough Book Review
Many a Quaint and Curious Volume