This gentle debut novel set in Depression-era Alabama kicks off with a startling opening scene. Nine-year-old Tess Moore is resting in the porch when she sees a stranger toss a swaddled baby into the family well. It's only later, when a small corpse is fished up in a bucket, that anyone believes her tale.
The adults may inured to misfortune but, haunted by the terrible "splash", Tess and older sister Virgie decide to investigate an apparent infanticide. Phillips switches between narrative voices as the girls' journey takes them into the homes of impoverished neighbours and relatives and the shacks of "Niggertown".
Beneath a coating of Southern charm, the novel proves a rich portrait of the coal-mining region. Racial and social tensions are rife, but the overriding tone remains more folksy than furious.