Phillips slices into the bittersweet lives of the Moore family in 1931 Carbon Hill, Alabama, a mining town suffering the effects of the Depression. Their eyes focused hopefully on Roosevelt's New Deal, townspeople help one another survive the desperation gripping the country, although racial inequity still festers beneath the surface of daily life. When a lone woman drops a small bundle into the covered well on the Moore's back porch, nine-year-old Tess is invisible to the visitor, obscured in the evening shadows. Watching the woman, a stranger, Tess is frozen in shock, unable to speak. When she tells her parents, they attribute Tess's excitement to yet another fanciful idea, but are proven wrong the next day when the body of a baby is retrieved from the well. While much neighborly curiosity ensues, after a while it is only Tess and Virgie, 14, who are unable to forget the event. Life is far too difficult to tarry long over the infant in the well.
Because Albert Moore owns land, his family will not go hungry; but those coming to this family's door are never sent away empty-handed. There is a strong current of community that serves this town well, the mines swallowing able men before light, spewing them back in the dark, coal-stained, to spend a few precious hours with their families. In a home built on strong values, Leta and Albert treasure their children, the impudent and curious Tess, teen-aged Virgie, navigating her adolescence and Jack, a bit younger than Tess and all boy. This is a family nurtured on respect and hard work, the children basking in their parent's solicitude and moral direction. It is this moral sense that confounds young Tess as she grapples with an unidentified woman's motivation in tossing her child into the back porch well. Told from the various perspectives of family members, an image emerges of life in a mining community faced with the daunting challenges of the times.
Through Albert, the father, we learn of the racial prejudice that seethes beneath the surface in Carbon Hill, the rigid attitudes that circumscribe Albert's efforts to connect with Jonah, a black friend and co-worker. Much as he might hope, a real friendship isn't possible, the ramifications for Albert's children's futures too risky. The back-breaking work of the mines informs this family's daily rituals, the children lovingly tended as they sample the realities of the world they inhabit. While the question of the mother's identity is an underlying theme, so is the simplicity of these lives, the hope for better working conditions through the UMW and the solid values that make such an existence bearable. This is a vivid palette of the experiences that define former generations, stoic in their hardship, their Christian doctrines challenged by racial prejudice, poverty and one mother's desperate action. Luan Gaines/ 2008.