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The Well and the Mine Paperback – April 8, 2009

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Amazon Exclusive:Gin Phillips on The Well and the Mine

The Well and the Mine is the story of one Depression-era family in an Alabama coal-mining town, and the single night that forever changes their view of the world around them. While the Moore family and their story are a product of my imagination, the world they live in was very real. It was a time and place shaped by the hard realities of poverty and racism, and there are still echoes of that world in the one we know today.

Let's start with 1931. Both banks in the coal-mining town of Carbon Hill had closed. The mining industry was close to shutting down, and 75 percent of the town's employment was tied to the mines. Property values were down 60 percent. For all the talk of an economic downturn now in 2009, the stark facts of the Great Depression highlight the gap between then and now. This was the Jim Crow South, with all the strictures of separate-but-not-equal in place. There was no Social Security, no disability, no Medicare or Medicaid, no aid for families with dependent children, no protection for unions. No heath insurance. It was, in large part, life without a safety net. And life was dangerous. If a man was killed in the mines, his widow and children could hope that neighbors or a charity or a church could offer help, but it was only a hope, there was no certainty. On the other side of hope was starvation and homelessness. Mining was demanding, mostly unregulated work. Each morning that a husband or father--there were no women in the mines yet--walked out the door, it was with a family acceptance of the chance that he might not come home. There was a very real chance that he could be killed during an average day's work. But that sense of life on a precipice is part of why this story appealed to me. In the midst of all the brutal labor and struggle and uncertainty, moments of beauty and transcendence have all the more power.

The plot of the book is entirely my invention. There was no baby thrown in a well, no investigation into the local mothers. Or at least none that I know of. But the people and the places do echo some real-life counterparts. Virgie, the Moore's oldest daughter, has my grandmother's sense of propriety. The youngest daughter, Tess, has my great-aunt's sense of fun. Their mother, Leta, has the efficiency and solidity of my great-grandmother, who died when she was 99 and I was 14. My great-grandfather, a coal-miner, died before I was born, but the stories about his razor-sharp sense of right and wrong are what gave Albert his backbone. My great-aunt still lives in the home my great-grandfather built, and I spent plenty of time in the house as I was writing this novel, sitting on the front porch and looking out over the woods, listening to the sound of the creek as I typed.

I grew up hearing stories about Carbon Hill in the 1920s and '30s being told across the dinner table or while sitting around the living room with my grandmother and her siblings. When I sat down to write the story of the fictional Moores, I delved back into my family's memories. Those memories helped bring 1931 rural Alabama to life--they gave me the sights and smells and the feel of the past. Bits and pieces of family lore found their way into the story, but also the domestic details and cultural perspectives that are hard to find in library books. Answers to questions like: What kind of underwear would you wear in 1931? What kind of floor cleaner would you use? How did a teenage girl feel about marriage? I never read good answers to those questions in library books, but I hear plenty of answers, simple and complicated, when I asked the right people.

And yet in the past, there are whispers of the future. The mining industry was unique in Alabama because it had an integrated workforce. In the mines, black men and white men worked side by side in the mines: It was a harbinger of things to come. Albert Moore wrestles with ideas of good and evil--of black and white--and comes face to face with complexities that haunt generations after him. Time and time again, he and the rest of his family struggle to do the right thing--and struggle all the harder to accept the fact that "right" may not always be such a concrete thing. It's that struggle, that drive to do what is fair and that need to see beyond their own perspective, that defines this family. And that struggle has as much relevance in 2009 as it did in 1931.

From Publishers Weekly

A tight-knit miner's family struggles against poverty and racism in Phillips's evocative first novel, set in Depression-era Alabama. Throughout, she moves skillfully between the points of view of miner father Albert, hard-working mother Leta, young daughter Tess and teenage daughter Virgie, and small son Jack. They see men who are frequently incapacitated or killed by accidents in the local mines; neighbors live off what they can grow on their patch of land; and blacks like Albert's fellow miner and friend Jonah are segregated in another part of Carbon Hill—and often hauled off to jail arbitrarily. When Tess witnesses a woman throwing a baby into their well, no one believes her until the dead child is found, and few are shocked. Tess, hounded by nightmares, and Virgie, on the cusp of womanhood and resistant to the thought of an early marriage to the local boys who court her, begin making inquiries of their own, visiting wives who've recently had babies and learning way more than they imagined. With a wisp of suspense, Phillips fully enters the lives of her honorable characters and brings them vibrantly to the page. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (April 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159448449X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594484490
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #662,328 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
As I read this book, I wished my mother was still alive to read it. It tells the story of a young girl and her family during the Depression. Like my mother, her father is a coal miner working for $8 a week. Reminders of the things that families did to survive during that time - eating a potato for lunch, putting cardboard in your shoes to make them last longer, working 350 hours in a month to pay your child's hospital bill - can help us gain perspective on the challenges we're facing now - and perhaps how we might use them to make our families stronger. My mother told me about those times. About how her older sister quit school rather than go without shoes. About how her father was murdered over a coal mine. About making a meal out of a piece of bread and a little sugar. I know she would have connected with this little girl.
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It's no wonder this book is getting huge buzz--it's a fantastic read that would appeal to anyone who loves Southern literature from the work of Fannie Flagg to Flannery O'Connor's; from Anne Rivers Siddon's books to William Faulkner novels. Really, this book appeals to anyone who loves a good story, rendered well. Phillips writing is somehow simultaneously fluid and hard-edged, and she knows her characters well enough to make their lives feel real to readers. This is one of the best books I've read in 2008. Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback
Phillips slices into the bittersweet lives of the Moore family in 1931 Carbon Hill, Alabama, a mining town suffering the effects of the Depression. Their eyes focused hopefully on Roosevelt's New Deal, townspeople help one another survive the desperation gripping the country, although racial inequity still festers beneath the surface of daily life. When a lone woman drops a small bundle into the covered well on the Moore's back porch, nine-year-old Tess is invisible to the visitor, obscured in the evening shadows. Watching the woman, a stranger, Tess is frozen in shock, unable to speak. When she tells her parents, they attribute Tess's excitement to yet another fanciful idea, but are proven wrong the next day when the body of a baby is retrieved from the well. While much neighborly curiosity ensues, after a while it is only Tess and Virgie, 14, who are unable to forget the event. Life is far too difficult to tarry long over the infant in the well.

Because Albert Moore owns land, his family will not go hungry; but those coming to this family's door are never sent away empty-handed. There is a strong current of community that serves this town well, the mines swallowing able men before light, spewing them back in the dark, coal-stained, to spend a few precious hours with their families. In a home built on strong values, Leta and Albert treasure their children, the impudent and curious Tess, teen-aged Virgie, navigating her adolescence and Jack, a bit younger than Tess and all boy. This is a family nurtured on respect and hard work, the children basking in their parent's solicitude and moral direction. It is this moral sense that confounds young Tess as she grapples with an unidentified woman's motivation in tossing her child into the back porch well.
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Mention fiction written from multiple points of view, and whose work comes instantly to mind? Well, if it's MY mind, the answer is William Faulkner--The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying. It's an ambitious undertaking, and when Faulkner did it, it was considered experimental. In The Well and the Mine, Gin Phillips has chosen to tell a fairly simple story through multiple narrative voices, one for each of the five members of the Moore family of Carbon Hill, Alabama.

The central plot element of this novel is the search for the woman who threw a baby into the Moores' covered well one dark night. Nine-year-old Tess Moore saw it happen, so she and her older sister, Virgie, set out to discover whether all the newish babies in the community are alive and well. In the process, they introduce us not only to the Moores, but to quite a few of their friends and acquaintances as well.

The technique of changing narrators doesn't feel experimental anymore, but there were times in this book where it did not work particularly well. Some of the change-overs were just awkward, and at first the girls' voices were not quite distinct from one another, despite the difference in their ages. The odd layout of the text at the beginning of each new section also contributed to a disjointed feeling for me. It's hard to describe, but if you use the "Look Inside" feature of this site, and click on "surprise me" once or twice, you'll probably come across an example of what I mean.

I tried very hard not to make comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, as others have done, while reading this story. To do so, I think, is to shortchange Gin Phillips.
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Format: Paperback
I will honestly admit up front that the only reason I requested this book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program is because Fannie Flagg wrote the introduction. The description sounded acceptable, but really, it all came down to Fannie Flagg for me. I love Fannie Flagg and all of her books, and I thought, 'Fannie Flagg hasn't written anything in quite awhile now, but at least I'll get to read an introduction by her!' Well, how wrong I was. I not only got an introduction by Fannie Flagg, but I also got a book that is honest, funny, poignant and touching all wrapped up into a story that I won't forget anytime soon.

Taking place in 1931, The Well and the Mine tells the story of Albert and Leta Moore and their family, daughters Virgie and Tess and young son Jack. The Moore's own land, so do not struggle as much as some of their neighbor's during the Depression, but still, like it is for everyone, times are not easy. Albert works in the coal mines, a fate that he doesn't want to have happen to his son. Leta cooks and cleans and takes care of her family, sometimes doing without for herself to make sure her children want for nothing. The children help out with day to day chores, but live a rather sheltered life at home, not knowing how bad it is for some of their own neighbors during this time.

One summer evening, Tess witnesses a woman throw a baby into the family well. No one believes Tess, thinking the event is a result of her overactive imagination, until the next day when a dead baby is pulled from the well. What transpires from this event is an amazing journey for the entire family, as they come to terms with their changing views of their own lives and the changing world around them. The two girls find themselves most at odds with their changing perspectives on the world.
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