Book Club: The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips

Our August book club selection was The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips. It tells the story of the Moores, a Depression-era coal mining family in Alabama.  For them, the Depression is nothing new — they have been barely getting by all their lives.  But not to worry, this is not “The Waltons.”  Parents Leta and Albert are hard-working and loving, but they’re not  saints, and at times, they rail against the unfairness of the economic inequality. Albert after all is a union member trying to improve working conditions and wages for men working in the coal mines.

The action centers around a mystery —  Tess Moore, the middle daughter, sees a woman throw a baby down the family well on a hot summer evening in 1931. Tess and her older sister Virgie then set out to find who would do something so unspeakably violent.  Their quest leads them to various awkward encounters with women and families in even more desperate economic circumstances than the Moores.  The readers’ guide asks, were Tess and Virgie’s intentions pure.  I would say, not at first.  In fact, they seem bent on proving that poor women with lots of kids are  innately depraved enough to kill their children.  Eventually they come to have empathy for women who do the best with what they have.

Albert Moore is fortunate enough to own land, which allows the family to grow much of their own food and to even employ tenant farmers to harvest cotton for them. Although Tess, Virgie, and their younger brother Jack have to help out around the house and farm, they still have some time for play and social activities.  The children of the tenant family, the Talberts, are not so fortunate and must spend their days picking cotton.  Albert offers his kids the chance to earn some pocket money by helping with the harvest.  They are complete failures — the much younger Talbert children can outpick them, and don’t complain about pricking their fingers or sweating in the hot sun.

Like others in the pre-FDR years of the Depression, the Moores are just barely hanging on. They have no health insurance, and no safety net should something terrible happen to the key breadwinner. When Jack is injured in a hit and run accident, Albert chooses to work double shifts at the mine to pay the medical bills, rather than sue the brick company that owns the truck that hit his son.  For me, this was the least believable part of the novel.   Yes, people were less likely to file lawsuits then, but it’s just not convincing after Phillips descriptions of Albert’s concerns about justice for the working man.

More believable is Albert’s willingness to cross the color line and befriend his African-American co-worker Jonah.   There are limits to this friendship, though. Albert invites Jonah to have dinner at his house — Jonah refuses, fearing retribution from Albert’s racist colleagues and neighbors. Albert eventually backs down — but I think he does it more to save Jonah from harm than to protect Albert’s family.

Unlike some reviewers at Amazon, I had no problem with the shift between each family members’ point of view.  What didn’t work so well was Phillips’ choice to have Jack narrate as an adult.   I suppose she did this so she could tie up loose ends by telling what happened to the family after the summer of 1931, but I would have liked the story better had she left this open to the reader’s imagination.  Once the girls solve the mystery of the Well Woman,  the energy of the story dissipates.

Still, for the most part, this is a convincing and engaging first novel.  It’s a great example of the struggles that families had to endure to survive in the era before the social safety net created by FDR’s New Deal.

Next up: A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.

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