Sunday, February 14, 2010

In an Alabama State of Mind

Although I've been living in North Carolina since 1995, I guess I'll always be an Alabama girl at heart, so when my friend Claudia gave me a copy of Gin Phillips' novel The Well and the Mine for Christmas, I was interested to see that it is set in Carbon Hill, Alabama, not far from my hometown and even closer to my sister Amy's home. Claudia had heard the book mentioned on NPR, I believe, and thought it sounded good, even though her only Alabama connection is I.

When our book club met in January, everyone else agreed to choose the book for our February discussion. I mentioned the title in an early post and learned that not only have several of my friends from "back home" read the book and met the author, but one of my good friends from college plays Canasta with Phillips' parents. It's a small world indeed.

The book started off with a bang--or more precisely, with a splash--as the younger daughter in the family who narrator the book together sees the shadow of a woman throwing a baby into the family well. Much of the tale follows different members of the family, especially the daughters and their father, trying to solve the mystery in order to give the baby a name.

Even more interesting to me was the life of this family of a coal-mining farmer in the toughest of times and the dignity with which they lived their lives. I couldn't help drawing contrasts to Jeannette Wells' childhood in Glass Castle. I still haven't forgiven Rosemary Wells for hiding under the covers eating a candy bar when her children were hungry. The mother in this novel fed her husband breakfast, telling him she would eat later with the children; then she'd lead the children to believe she'd eaten with their father. They rarely had meat with meals, but the pleasure they took in what they were served was genuine.

Phillips also tackles touchy issues of racism with sensitivity, particular as Albert, the father, becomes increasingly aware of the intelligence and humanity of the black man with whom he works side and by side and begins to desire a friendship, despite the obvious problems this would cause for both men and their families.

The author effectively balances the points of view of all five members of the family, even giving a glimpse of their later years. Because of my own geographical proximity to the story, there were shades of details I recognized and appreciated that might slip right by some readers (especially subtle details about religion). She has achieved a story, though, that will appeal to readers who've never crossed the Alabama state line, much less the Walker County line, creating characters readers will care about. Overall, the book rings true.

Postscript: If you need a soundtrack for the book, try Shelby Lynne's "Alabama State of Mind" or Kate Campbell's "Crazy in Alabama."

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