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The Well and the Mine
by Gin Phillips
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 159448449X, Paperback)
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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.
(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:57 -0400)
Witnessing what she believes to be the murder of an infant in a Depression-era Alabama mining town, a nine-year-old girl and her civic-minded family subsequently struggle with the darker side of their racially torn community.
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