The Well and the Mine is Alabama author Gin Phillips’s first novel, and I’m impressed. The plot is simple: Nine year old Tess witnesses a tragedy on her own back porch, and she and her older sister, Virgie, try to figure out why a Mystery Woman threw a baby in their well. It’s very much a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (OK, I’m not saying it’s as good as To Kill a Mockingbird, but the setting and themes are similar. And it is good.)
The well part of the title is indicative of the plot; the mine points to the setting. The story of Tess and VIrgie and their family takes place in the fictional mining town of Carbon Hill, Alabama, somewhere not too far from Birmingham. Tess’s daddy is a coal miner; her mother is a homemaker who works from dawn to late at night to put food on the table and make a life for herself, her husband, and her three children. Tess and Virgie have a little brother, Jack. They’re all good folks.
Each member of the family takes turns telling the story in first person from his or her point of view, sometimes for a few paragraphs and sometimes for several pages. This rotating narration was annoying at first. I had to keep looking back to the beginning of the section to the name in italics to see who was talking, who “I” was this time. But you get used to it, and this style of story-telling has the advantage of giving the reader a fuller view of what’s going on in the family, of family dynamics, of how different people see things. Each of the five narrators became a real person for me. I felt I knew them, and I was glad that Ms. Phillips saw fit to tell us over the course of the story, which mainly focuses on one summer in 1931, what happened to each family member in later life.
I’m glad I got to read this novel about life during the Great Depression in a coal-mining town in northern Alabama. I didn’t even know they had coal mines in Alabama. I associate coal mining with Kentucky and West Virginia. At any rate, if you’re a fan of the Southern novel, the summer-of-growing-up family slice of life novel, or the gentle, rambling, character-driven story of an historical era, The Well and the Mine will fit the bill. Recommended.