Phillips’ poignant novel goes to the heart of the Depression with a coal mining family in 1931 Carbon Hill, Alabama, focusing on the lives of Albert, Leta, and their three children: Virgie, Tess and Jack. Tess is only nine the moonless night she watches a stranger step upon their back porch and drop a baby into the covered well.
At first no one believes Tess. A fanciful child, her imagination is readily engaged. But the following day proves that Tess wasn’t lying - there is a baby in the well. As family and neighbors buzz about this bizarre occurrence, Tess begins a new phase of her young life, pondering improbables, questioning things she has always taken for granted.
At fourteen, the beautiful Virgie is far less frivolous, facing the challenges of boys and high school, but frequently the girls put their heads together, making lists of possible mothers. The baby becomes a theme throughout these months, although events conspire to change their priorities. Yet Tess never forgets or stops looking for answers.
Raised in poverty, the Moore family never succumbs to the dire circumstances suffered by some neighbors; Albert owns the land, so they will never go hungry. When people come to the door, no one is turned away empty-handed. This generosity is the hallmark of a close-knit home, hard-working and grateful for the food on their table. Albert and Leta are exceptional parents, Albert a miner who bears the coal dust of his work in the creases of his skin.
With rarely a spare hour to spend with his children, Albert’s bond with them is strengthened by love and respect. The quiet, perseverant Leta balances her husband, a noble character whose values have significance in her world, days spent in service to husband and family, industrious on their behalf. Such couples are the backbone of American lore, the stoic virtues of toil and sacrifice in order to better their children’s lives. In a world of scarcity, this family lacks only financial comfort.
Products of a loving environment, the three children reflect their upbringing: the ever-curious Tess, impulsive and full of dreams; the more practical Virgie, with one eye on the present and the other on the future; and young Jack, sturdy as his father, learning the tough lessons of his childhood.
The quest for the identity of the dead baby’s mother framed within the family’s daily concerns, the Moores inhabit a country caught in the grip of poverty and the New Deal, an attempt to unionize the mine workers and the racial barriers that dictate the separation of black and white. Against the background of their poor-in-goods but rich-in-spirit home, this family evokes simpler, harsher times, the need for survival that binds people together on behalf of one another and the unspoken prejudices of segregation.
In simple, touching prose, Phillips reveals the intimate lives of an extraordinary family, their struggles and joys, Tess realizing finally “[t]hat the right answer could be more than one thing at the same time.”