One of the great losses that our constant march of technological gains has brought us is that we’ve almost lost the power to disbelieve in technology.
At the beginning of Virginia Reeves’ debut novel, “Work Like Any Other,” this was certainly not the case. Coal mines were a major economic force in Alabama in the 1920s, and many saw the promises of electricity as a form of voodoo. Its possibilities and dangers must have felt immense.
Both show themselves prominently as Roscoe T Martin is forced to abandon his work as an electrician to join his wife, Marie, on her family farm, which has seen its best days.
The farming life does not appeal to Roscoe on any level, and his growing frustration leads him to consider abandoning his responsibilities and burdensome restraints — until he learns that electricity will be coming to his part of the countryside, and he begins to scheme ways in which this power can save his marriage, farm and sense of self.
All goes well until it doesn’t, and through a combination of minor theft and accidental death, Roscoe finds himself headed to Kilby Prison.
A worse fate is handed to Wilson, the black farmhand who has worked the land as a free man with his family. As an accomplice to Roscoe’s crimes, Wilson is also sent to Kilby, but only briefly. “Convict leasing” was a popular practice at this time in Alabama — that terminology being a polite way of saying state-forced slave labor.
Roscoe and Wilson will each do hard time, but in ways that are dissimilar in every possible way.
This is just from the early stages of a novel that is told solidly in terms of its pace and place and language. This is a historical fiction and tale of morality in many forms. The prison portion of the work will remind many readers of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” with its ideas of escape paired with prisoners’ fear of leaving their regimented lives.
Saying now that both Roscoe and Wilson do return to the farm doesn’t ruin any great mystery here. The novel’s great strength is that in showing so much in terms of race, our prison system, forgiveness and labor, it never is heavy-handed. Reeves does an admirable job of letting the novel stay true to itself and its handful of characters we come to admire or distrust.
I found myself often torn and not knowing who was the hero/ine and whose side I wanted to be on. Reeves’ nuance for these people and this story is, indeed, quite powerful.
Hans Weyandt is a former bookseller who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons.