Review: The Well and the Mine, Gin Phillips

I have been hearing about this book all over.  The first line is captivating: “After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time.  But I kept hearing that splash.”  So I decided to read it even though it is several things I tend not to like: a Southern novel, set in the Depression, and featuring The Mines.  My final opinion is, The Well and the Mine is quite good for a Southern Depression Mines novel, which – it confirmed once more for me – is just not the best kind of book for me.

Nine-year-old Tess is outside daydreaming near her family’s well, when she sees a woman throw a baby into the well.  She struggles with this memory, trying to work out who the woman could have been, with the help of her older sister Virgie.  Her father and mother are meanwhile doing their best in a town beset with the financial and racial problems of the Great Depression.

I liked it that the baby-in-well plotline provided a framework for the book without being the central concern of all the characters all the time.  In the midst of the Great Depression, Tess’s parents have other things to worry about than someone else’s now-over difficulties with a now-dead baby.  The baby in the well frames the story, in terms of plot as well as theme.  The Well and the Mine is about people coping with impossible situations to the best of their abilities.  Tess’s family, the Moores, are Good People, and most of the characters in the book are – in varying degrees – Good People.  People who try, people who help each other.  I liked all this.

(I keep writing The Gin and the Mine and The Well and the Gin.  Dammit.)

The story is told from the points of view of Tess and Virgie, and their parents Leta and Albert.  The younger brother, Jack, also gets to narrate sections of the story, but he speaks as an adult looking back on what happened.  This could easily have had the effect of yanking the reader out of the story, but instead it just gave perspective to the whole thing, a sense that their present difficulties would pass (or not pass).  The multiple perspectives thing was interesting insofar as I like knowing what’s occupying each of the characters, but their voices are not distinct, and that made it not work so well for me.

As I say – mainly it was good.  I just don’t like this kind of book.  Is there a genre or subject matter that puts you off a book?

Other reviews: Paperback Reader, Books and Cooks, Educating Petunia, Thoughts of Joy, Leafing Through Life, Semicolon, Five Borough Book Review, The B Files, and possibly others, so let me know if I missed yours!

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25 thoughts on “Review: The Well and the Mine, Gin Phillips

  1. I’ve been dying to read this. It’s published by an fairly local press that I just really love supporting. I’m sorry it wasn’t your kind of book!

    • It’s absolutely worth reading! I think if it hadn’t been for my unfair prejudice against books like this, I’d have really loved it. It’s very well-written, and it deals with a number of issues without feeling the need to resolve them. Refreshing!

  2. I hadn’t heard of this one, and it sounds like one that’s not for me. I generally avoid Southern Fiction. I’ve read a few Southern books that didn’t manage to irritate me (and most of those were by Clyde Edgerton), but most seem too focused on making the characters earthy or quirky or making Important Statements about The Race Issue. They don’t feel authentic to this southerner.

    • YES! I so much agree with you! About the Race Issue and the Clyde Edgerton business. And as well – it’s not that I don’t think it’s important to write books about racial conflicts, but it seems to me many of them ignore the nuance and focus on the very very obvious. I’m counting out Clyde Edgerton here as well as of course The Color Purple which is on my top ten list.

      (I haven’t got a top ten list actually but if I did then The Color Purple would be on it.)

      • Yes, the Color Purple is another exception (as is Beloved), but I suppose I have those filed away in my mind as African-American fiction. And, yes, it’s nuance that’s lacking in the racial discussions. The lived experience was much more complicated than many books make it seem.

        I grew up just a couple of hours away from where Edgerton’s books are set, and when I first read his books, it was as if he’d visited my grandmother’s house and taken notes. Absolutely spot-on.

        Have you read The Help? I have a feeling my book club is going to choose it as an upcoming read, and I’m reluctant for all the reasons I’ve mentioned.

      • I haven’t read The Help, though I’ve heard nothing but nice things about it. It’s on my list but I suspect it’s going to be a good long while before I get around to reading it. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it!

  3. I am no good with what has in its time been called Kitchen Sink Drama which sounds suspiciously like the UK equivalent of Southern fiction. So, depression, hardship, people taking belts off trousers to whip youngsters, grey skies, money troubles, rare moments of joy down the pub that end in fist fights. I feel that if the novels of this sort had anything insightful to say, I’d enjoy them, but their interest is mostly in representing a certain lifestyle in a frozen-in-eternity kind of way. No thanks. And I don’t tend to read science fiction, although I did read Douglas Adams once and laughed a lot.

    • Well, the Southern novels are much like that, except leaving out the moments of joy at the pub, and adding in liberal use of racial slurs. Many of the Southern novels seem hell-bent on ignoring any possible moments of joy. Which is strange! I’m from Louisiana and I tell you if there is one thing Louisiana knows how to do, it’s have a party under just about any circumstances. I always wonder if the rest of the South missed the memo on how that works, or only Southern authors.

      Have you read The Color Purple? It has more to say than most other books in the whole world, though it is a Southern novel. I like to put in a plug for it at every possible opportunity. 😛

  4. Thanks for the link. I don’t usually read much southern fiction but I have to admit to being captivated by this, perhaps partly because it was so different from the things I usually read. I do agree however that the different voices weren’t always completely distinct.

    • I’m glad you liked it! I’m always sad when I read a book that I know I’d love if – well, if I loved that sort of book. It’s possible I liked it better than I would normally have done, because of the multiple points of view. Even when not done perfectly, I love a book with multiple points of view.

  5. i had me a wife
    i had me some daughters
    i tried so hard
    i never knew still waters
    nothin’ to eat and nothin’ to drink
    nothin’ for a man to do but sit around and think
    nothin’ for a man to do but sit around and think

    well, i’m thinkin’ and a-thinkin’ till there’s nothin’ i ain’t thunk
    breathin’ in the stink, till finally i stunk
    it was at that time, i swear i lost my mind
    i started makin’ plans to kill my own kind
    i started makin’ plans to kill my own kind

    An entire genre encapsulated in “Country Death Song.”

    • I would still recommend this book to anyone, despite its being not my thing. All the good things you’ve heard are quite true, and I’ll look forward to hearing what you think of it!

  6. I am not ususally fan of Southern fiction (I am a solid Northerner!) but I really liked this one. I’ve read a few Southern books this year for one reason or another and generally I’ve liked them, I just don’t seek them out for some reason.

    • I actively don’t seek them out, and I’m as solid a Southerner as any. I think I mainly don’t like depressing, dusty books – I can’t read anything set in America during the Depression. John Steinbeck’s beautiful prose notwithstanding.

  7. Hahaha, love the Country Death Song! Southern fiction often reminds me of Catherine Cookson’s Tyneside novels – but I like Cookson better because it isn’t MY kitchen sink, it’s kitchen sinks across the pond.

  8. Yikes! That surely is an opening sentence!

    I agree with you though, depression novels just aren’t my thing, namely The Grapes of Wrath and all other things written by Steinbeck. I also try to avoid Faulkner. They just aren’t my cup of tea. I wish I did– they have so many classics. This is not to say that I dislike all Southern lit though– I really enjoy Twain and (if you consider her so) O’Connor.

    Dickens and Collins also fall into my avoid list, but I try to give everything a chance.

    Great review!

    • Oh, I avoid Faulkner like crazy. Cannot stand Faulkner, and I am not just saying that because when I read Light in August, it was the second book I’d read that year where a woman got dismembered miserably in a tense racial environment. I haven’t liked Dickens so far but I am hoping that this will someday change, and I absolutely loved Collins (to my surprise).

      • Ugh, LiA, ugh. I also had to read As I Lay Dying for a class once and have since pushed it from my mind. I don’t know, I just can’t find them all that interesting– they don’t hold my attention.

        I really want to try another Collins. I read Woman in White and really got into about 1/3 of it but the rest of it was pretty ‘eh’ to me. It seems like he has quite a few other fabulous books out there– maybe I’ll just have to choose a shorter one this time ;p

        When it comes to classics I am much more partial to adventure novels a la Dumas, Haggard, and Stevenson. I need to break out of my shell!

      • I liked The Moonstone much better than The Woman in White – maybe try that one?

        I love Dumas and Haggard, though for some reason I’ve avoided Stevenson. Have you ever read Rafael Sabatini’s books? He writes totally swashbuckling adventure stories. Or P.C. Wren? His ones are set in the French Foreign Legion – so much fun! Beau Geste is a good place to start with him.

    • I read a review about The Moonstone a while back, and it sounded pretty good. I’ll just have to bite the bullet and do it!

      I will definitely have to be on the lookout for Sabatini– maybe put some on my xmas list!

      Ahh, Dumas is an all time favorite. I think I actually almost cried at the end of The Knight of Maison Rouge. Have you ever read it?

  9. Sorry for the late response! As you know, I loved this one and I am glad that you gave it a go despite your reservations. At least it has confirmed that Southern literature is not for you and I can appreciate why; I also understand what you mean about the lack of nuance when it comes to discussing race (although I did enjoy how it was done in this book – naive but not cliched nor condescending).

    • I agree with you about race in this one. It’s not the anvil-like affair you see in a lot of Southern books, definitely; it’s just a part of the family’s life, and not too big a part as to seem unrealistic. I did enjoy it! Just not as much as I might have if I liked Southern literature. (Alas.)

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