Shelf Sample: The Well and the Mine

Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts publishes some fine books--American literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, although they say "we won't turn down a good international title if we find one.'' Additionally, the books are beautiful: trade paperbacks with acid-free paper, sewn bindings and French flaps. Of course, all this matters not a whit unless the books are good, and they are. One of the latest is The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips ($15.95, 9780976631170/0976631172, February 2008), a novel set in 1931, in a small Alabama coal mining town. The story begins with nine-year-old Tess seeing a woman remove the cover off her family's back porch well and drop a baby inside. At first, no one believes her, but then they look, aren't particularly surprised, and Phillips makes us understand why. She writes about life in the mines, racism, poverty and backbreaking work with grittiness, but there is beauty and love, too, and her spare, graceful prose shines when she writes about the tenderness between Tess' parents, or the simple fact of coffee:
I pulled his coffee cup from the cabinet and poured over the sink, with the heat from the cup warming my fingers as the brew rose to the top. Just a ground or two floating. Black as night, so hard looking it didn't seem right that a spoon could move through it.

"Must taste like coal," I said under my breath, stopping up the pot's spout with a bit of cloth and setting it back on the stove to keep warm.

"Coffee?" He took a sip, smiled, and closed his eyes as he leaned back. "No, ma'am. Tastes like daylight."

--Marilyn Dahl


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