Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Work Like Any Other

Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves
Scribner: 3/1/16
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501112492

Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves is a highly recommended story of pride, bitterness, resentment, and guilt set in the 1920s.

Roscoe T Martin is at heart an electrician, a line man. He was working for the Alabama Power Company when he met and married Marie, who was a teacher. When Marie inherits her father's farm, Roscoe has to give up the job he loves to do a job he detests - farming. We know from the opening sentence that all will not go well, that a man will die. We also know that resentment is already deeply rooted in both Roscoe and Marie. 

Roscoe sees the power lines running near the farm and decides that, with the help of Wilson, a black man whose family manages the farm, he can set up his own lines and siphon off a little electricity to the farm. Roscoe knows that this will help with the farming and ultimately help the farm prosper. And his scheme works for a time. The farm does prosper and the tension in his relationship with Marie and their son, Gerald, eases.

But then the sheriff comes to their door one night and Roscoe is arrested for the death of a man who was electrocuted when checking out Roscoe's illegal lines and for the theft of the power. Wilson is also arrested. At this point Marie completely abandons her husband, blaming him for anything and everything that pops into her mind, past and present. She supports Wilson. Both men are convicted in separate trials and Roscoe is sent to Kilby prison to serve a twenty year sentence.

The narrative alternates between Roscoe's experiences in prison and those of life with Marie in the past and on the farm. Roscoe is clinging to the idea that Marie still loves him. He writes to her, even though she does not write now and did not attend or support him during his trial. His life in prison is brutal and violent, but he has his work in the dairy, at the prison library, and as a "dog boy." There are times when he dreams he is talking to a younger Marie while in prison.

Just as Roscoe was bitter about moving to the farm, Marie has a load of resentment and bitterness that she has been nurturing and building for years. Her bitterness overtakes her and she spreads it to her son. Roscoe did not intend to harm anyone - and the electricity did help the farm prosper - but once Roscoe is imprisoned, Marie is back to struggling and is unable to see beyond her pain. There is a world of pain in these people and much of the suffering is almost self-inflicted, although much is also brought to bear on Roscoe by others.

The writing is incredible in this novel. Reeves has a beautiful way with some of her descriptions which are almost too elegant for some of the harsh realities in her novel. Work Like Any Other sits firmly on the literary historical fiction shelf. (There is also quite a bit about electricity contained in Roscoe's musings.) The redemption in the description is found at the end, but perhaps not what you'd be expecting. It was a satisfying end for me, but this is still a deeply sad story that leaves a feeling of melancholy after you've read it. 

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Scribner for review purposes.

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