Book Review: The Well and the Mine (Gin Phillips)

Available at all good bookstores, courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.

“After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash.”

Wouldn’t you chalish [Yiddish, v.: yearn] to read a book that started there? Well, I did. And it was worth it.

This, Gin Phillips’ first novel, is set in a small coal mining town in Alabama in Depression-damaged 1931 – where little Tess Moore watches from her favourite night-time hiding place, the back porch, as a strange woman lifts the cover of the family well and without a word, tosses a baby in.

The story shifts narrators often and suddenly, which I usually don’t like. But each of the characters (Albert, Tess’s father; Leta, her mother; Virgie, her older sister; and tiny Jack, her baby brother) is so likeable and so real that this device soon becomes comfortable and indeed, useful.

Each in their own way, the family members try to get to the bottom of the baby in the well, all the while mildly disbelieving. And in the end, against the overarching tapestry of the hardest, hungriest of times in American history, they find the answer.