Sunday, August 29, 2010
The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips: A Diamond in Coal Country
At the end of July I spent a weekend with my widowed sister-in-law and her family in southern West Virginia--and it is only recently that my mind, forced to pay attention to other issues, has returned back to home. I asked for some glimpses into "uncanned history," and my sister-in-law and her sister very kindly obliged and took me to see two deserted coal towns, Thurmond and Kaymoor. Both sisters had lived in Thurmond when its population was down to fewer than 100. My sister-in-law used to flag down the Amtrak passenger train with her bandanna and then hop on to go to Philadelphia, where my brother picked her up to go down to the Jersey shore. To see Kaymoor we hiked nearly three miles up a mountain. Along with their mother, they introduced me to the world of coal--a lot different than the far easier worlds of farming and suburbia in southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania that I had grown up in.
When I came home I started digging into coal mining, the struggles of the United Mine Workers to unionize coal mining in Appalachia (a campaign that at least ended coal feudalism), the history of coal mining in the United States, who owns the land in Appalachia, and the history of the region and of its people. I also wanted to read novels from these endless mountains and happily came upon Gin Phillips' The Well and the Mine.
You don't need an interest in coal to read this book--The Well and the Mine will appeal to anyone who is interested in reading novels about families, raising children, housework, and everyday morality.
The story takes place in the coal mining region of northern Alabama, home region to Ms. Phillips, and is about the Moore family--a father, mother, two daughters, and a son. Ms. Phillips tells the story through the words of all five, which is a pleasure in itself. In this way -- unlike modern-day novels that function only as screenplays with scenic description -- The Well and the Mine gives us insight into the mind of each character and what they are thinking, including of each other.
The story takes place during the depression. It is hard to imagine a family in which the father works hard every day and it is still a struggle to put food on the family table. The Moores do better than others, because the father works a small farm and raises vegetables. They get milk from the family cow. Mrs. Moore puts up vegetables for the winter, and the family rarely eats meat, not even on Sundays. Their meals are composed of bread, which Mrs. Moore bakes, along with assorted vegetables, relishes, and fruit. They churn their own butter. Breakfast is biscuits. The book also describes Mrs. Moore's views of housekeeping--in contrast to those of her sister. (I love books that talk about housekeeping theories!)
It was a relief to spend time visiting, through this novel, with a functioning family. Far from being boring, as Tolstoy avers, it is fascinating to see how the Moores muster their strength to deal with the many difficulties they face, with the opportunities they have for doing both good and evil, with the changes each goes through as the family's youngsters grow older. This was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring read.
You can read about Gin Phillips here, and here she explains the origins of The Well and the Mine, her first novel. I will be watching out for the next.