Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The Well and the Mine
Another Southern novel. Another story told from multiple points of view. Another debut novel. You’d think I was stuck in a rut. Yet, this is a very different book than both Mudbound and The Help.
Set in Alabama during the Great Depression, this is the story of the Moores. Albert and Leta are struggling to raise their three children, Virgie, Tess and Jack. Alfred works both the coal mines and the farm he bought to be free of company housing and company store. When Tess sees an unrecognizable woman toss a baby down the family well, the family is at first skeptical. When they later draw the baby out of the well, the family struggles with both guilt and the search for resolution (who was the child, how could someone do that, why their well…).
The story is told from the point of view of all five family members. Although the voices are not as distinct as they are in Mudbound (I know I keep mentioning this book, but it’s because the author did such a fantastic job of creating such distinct voices for all of her narrators), it is still interesting to see the different family member’s takes on their life. Albert is concerned with providing for his family and raising his children to be good and free of hate. Leta is uber-practical, constantly working to keep the house clean, her family fed, and the animals tended to. Virgie is the child who cares for everyone, while Tess is a bit more curious and fanciful. Jack, the youngest, is a bit removed from the present story and tends to add in details of the future.
For awhile, I was a bit annoyed by how perfect everyone seemed. Later, a few quirks turned up, but still, this is the family everyone in town turns to for help in grim times. The baby in the well adds a bit of mystery to the story, but what I found so fascinating was the day to day life. Albert and Leta worked extremely hard, pretty much all the time, just to survive and provide food, clothing and shelter for their family, as well as those less fortunate. I think I found it so fascinating because this is how I imagine life was for my paternal grandparents when they were growing up in Mississippi in the 1910s and 1920s.
Here are two of my favorite passages from the book:
"She said worms could crawl up into the bottoms of your feet and make a home there.
I could see those little worms setting up house in my heels or big toes, carving out little living rooms in my feet, building nice warm fires and bringing in tiny mattresses and kitchen tables no bigger than freckles.
Mama said that was not how they did it at all." Tess, page 59
"There was something perfect about a spoon of thick heavy beans and a bite of sweet onion. That mix of hot and cold, soft and crisp. Leta was a great cook, good as any woman I'd ever known, but the real mystery was how she knew what should fit together, what mix of foods made the right mouthful. Beans and onion. Squash and tomato. It was the different tastes together, the ones that it didn't make no sense at all to stick on the same fork, that your tongue really remembered." Albert, page 159