The Well and the Mine - By Gin Phillips


I first met Gin Phillips in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1997 while serving as co-chair of the Birmingham-Southern College GALA weekend Women of Distinction awards. She was the student assigned as my escort for the weekend, and while walking from function to function, she mentioned briefly that she wanted to become a writer. Having heard that from students so many times in the past, I wished her well and honestly forgot all about it. When I received a letter from Hawthorne Books asking if I would be willing to read a book by a young Alabama writer, I was surprised and delighted to find out it was Gin Phillips and that instead of just talking about it and thinking about it, she actually sat down and wrote a book—not only a book, but a wonderful book!

I know Alabama well, and The Well and the Mine takes me back there. But this story doesn’t so much re-create a place as it does a life—lives, really—a town and a family full of hopes and oddities and hidden fears. Life is boiled down to its fundamentals for the Moores—hard work, family, the taste and smells of land and home. Their whole world consists entirely of Carbon Hill, population three thousand. No Fireside Chats yet, no money to get a newspaper, and only the occasional Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Alabama in 1931 assumes a texture in these pages, palpable and alive. It’s a texture made up of the details of domesticity, from the way a mother washes her floors to the way lights crackle in an electrical storm. It’s a texture thick with the mechanics and fatigue of coal mining. And it’s a texture dotted with young girls’ imaginings and plottings.

There could be a tendency to idealize this past, to give in to nostalgia and turn this story into The Waltons. And, admittedly, it is an alluring past, with unlocked doors and a close-knit family and dinners spent talking and laughing around the table without a television in sight. But it isn’t a one-dimensional ideal. This is a past that’s ripe with complications, be they racial barriers or a baby down a well. Right next to the sweet tea and long porch nights, tragedy is always lurking, so close and so possible. For a miner, the thought that you might not make it home from work that day is as much a part of your morning as a cup of coffee. The Moores have no safety net, no protection against the worst other than Albert Moore’s good health and paycheck.

This is a book that opens with a baby thrown down a well. It’s also a book that’s funny. So, speaking of texture, it’s not exactly a predictable pattern.

When you watch Tess and Virgie scouting Carbon Hill for the Well Woman, when you follow Albert down into the mines or Leta on the way to a Birmingham hospital, you step into their lives. When you close the book, you’ll miss these characters. But The Well and the Mine doesn’t just give you characters who stay with you—it gives you a whole world.


Author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe


1 Water Calling

Tess AFTER SHE THREW THE BABY IN, NOBODY BELIEVED me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash.

The back porch comes right off our kitchen, with wide gray-brown boards you can lose a penny between if you’re not careful. The boards were warm with heat from the August air, but breathing was less trouble than it was during daytime. Everybody else was on the front porch after supper, so I could sit by myself, nothing but night and trees around me, a thin moon punched out of the sky. The garden smelled stronger than the leftover fried cornbread and field peas with onions. And the breeze tiptoed across the porch, carrying those smells of meals done and still to come, along with a whiff of Papa’s cigarette and snatches of talk from out front. It was the best time of the day to sit with the well, its wooden box taking up one corner of the porch and me taking up another.

I loved the well then.

I leaned against the kitchen door and looked through the wood posts of the railing, even though I couldn’t see anything but black. There weren’t clouds covering that slice of moon or the blinking stars, but they still didn’t throw enough light. The light from the kitchen door let me see