If themes and character types could be protected as intellectual property, Harper Lee would be a billionaire. To Kill a Mockingbird has got to be the most-scavenged, most-cribbed novel in the world, or at least in the United States. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful novel, of course, but it makes me roll my eyes nonetheless because its character types and plot devices are by now such clichés: the wise and sainted parent, infinitely better than the society that surrounds him; the wide-eyed innocent child narrator; the little-understood but seemingly-sinister adult in the community, fascinating to the children and pitied by other adults; collusion among siblings; the curse of racism; the poverty of the Great Depression. These tropes weren’t clichés before To Kill a Mockingbird, of course – it was Harper Lee who elevated them, and now they are taken as natural – almost requisite – elements of a coming-of-age novel.
The fact that Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine is yet another reshuffling of Harper Lee’s deck of cards bothered me at first, but the novel soon charmed me out of my annoyance. On the first page of this novel, eight year-old Tess Moore sees a woman enter the Moores’ yard, stop at their well, unwrap a bundle she is carrying to reveal a baby, and finally drop the baby into the well. Tess’ family doesn’t believe her at first when she relates this incident, but soon the bucket in their well turns up a blanket. The sheriff gets involved, dredges the well, and finds the baby, and the coroner later reports that the baby did not drown; he was dead before the woman threw him in the well.
All of these facts, which are revealed slowly over the first half of the novel, disturb Tess and her family a great deal, of course. Her family consists of father Albert and mother Leta – both of whom are wise and sainted, beacons of clichéd goodness in a sea of ignorance and racism – older sister Virgie and younger brother Jack. They live in Carbon Hill, Alabama in the early 1930’s, and their lives are circumscribed by poverty and by the misery of coal mining. By the standards of Carbon Hill, however, the Moores are more well-off than others. Albert owns some land and hires a tenant family to farm it, so he receives income from his harvest as well as from his own work in the mines, where he is a trusted supervisor. Racial tensions and labor disputes simmer in the background of this novel.
The novel’s title suggests that much of what is important for these characters is underground. When the Moores find the baby in their well, they naturally worry that the water in their well is contaminated. They soon deduce that it’s not, both because they drank its water for several days after the incident when they didn’t believe Tess’ story and because the well is drawn from an underground stream whose constantly-moving water is not easily contaminated. Before the incident, Tess called the well “my well” and loved to sit and look at it; after the incident, she is uncomfortable in its presence, making it sort of a stand-in for the Tree of Knowledge in the Eden story. Once the baby is found and its death by some factor other than drowning is announced, Tess and her sister Virgie decide to do some detective work to find out the identity of the “well woman,” as they call her (in this novel, the well woman serves the same role as Boo Radley does in To Kill a Mockingbird). They make a list of every woman in town who has had a baby recently and then scheme to actually set eyes on each baby to make sure it is still alive. This escapade teaches Tess and Virgie a few subtle but important lessons: first, that they don’t know everyone who lives in their town, as they thought they did, and second, that their own family, which can rarely afford to have meat for dinner, is much more privileged than most other families in town. Their sleuthing brings them to the home of a woman who grew up with Leta Moore, and they are immediately aware of how thin and vacant-eyed this women’s many children are. One of the children confesses to Tess and Virgie that their family has had nothing but bread and wild blackberries for dinner for several weeks. Despite her preoccupation with feeding caring for her children, this woman recognizes immediately that Tess and Virgie are trying to figure out if she is the one who put the baby in the well, and she approaches Leta, who insists that the girls stop their investigation.
While Gin Phillips’ debt to Harper Lee is clear, there is one way in which this novel exceeds the accomplishments of Lee’s novel, and that is the plausible use of a child narrator. Child narrators in general are often a bit larger-than-life. Novelists always seem to need to make their child narrators precocious and inquisitive and articulate – probably because adults won’t want to read a novel about a vacant, complaisant protagonist. The first two of these qualities describe many children. Scout Finch and other child protagonists (Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima, David Hayden in Montana, 1948, etc.) are quite intelligent, and the fact that they are precocious and inquisitive is entirely plausible. Most children, even smart ones, aren’t especially articulate, however. The world inside their minds is limitless, but most of the time they don’t have the vocabulary and perspective to render these worlds in words – especially in the moment when they are experiencing something intense or unfamiliar. A relaxed child lazing around the house in thrall to her imagination might be able to speak cogently about what she is thinking – but no one writes about relaxed children, because literature needs conflict and children, like all humans, are more compelling tense than relaxed. All of this is a long way of saying that Gin Phillips’ protagonist is more plausible than Harper Lee’s. Phillips uses a shifting point of view – with chapters told from the first-person perspective of all five family members, so while we sometimes hear Tess’ thoughts in her own words, we also see her from the outside, from the perspective of her family members; this structure enables Phillips to allow Tess to be stunned and tongue-tied once and a while. When Tess does get in a zinger of a line (in internal monologue or in speech), I felt that Phillips had really earned the right to let Tess be precociously wise. My favorite line in the novel comes from Tess’ internal monologue. Right after she meets the woman who will turn out to be the well woman – but long before Tess or the reader knows this to be so – Tess’s narration reads, “I thought to myself that I’d found another person who’d agree that if there were fairies in the forest, there must also be an ugly something that ate them” (153).
I recommend this novel highly, both to aficionados of To Kill a Mockingbird and other coming-of-age literature and to those who, like me, are a little tired of this genre’s familiar tropes. While I’m not sure I would ever teach this novel in a course (I would pick Bless Me, Ultima or Montana, 1948 first), it certainly belongs on lists of suggested reading for high school students and would, in my opinion, make a great summer reading selection. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Phillips’ second novel, The Hidden Summer (published in June of 2014) is marketed as a young adult novel. The Well and the Mine could be marketed to young adults as well, although it’s true that the rotating narration gives the reader glimpses into the minds and past histories of the adult characters in the novel in a way that the typical young adult novel does not. But enough – read it and you’ll see.