Alabama is the setting for Covington's third novel, as it was for Gathering Home (1988) and Bird of Paradise (1990). This one combines a coming-of-age story with a mining disaster and a Christmas miracle. It's late 1941, Pearl Harbor time. In a small mining town, two families are bracing for a difficult wedding. Nineteen-year-old Keller Hayes lives in a tiny company house with mine-worker father Ben Ray and mother Tess, a church-singer. Higher up the social scale are the Sandifers: filling-station owner Sandy, otherworldly wife Grace, and grease-monkey daughter Laura. The problem is Sandy, a mean drunk who's mighty sore at losing Laura to a miner's son and is threatening violence. Another worry for Keller is his unconventional mother's decision to invite Bolivia, the sweet- natured, gypsy-like town whore, who is pregnant; Keller suspects (correctly) that he's the father. But Bolivia's presence proves a godsend: she knows how to handle Scotty, another client, and literally disarms him. Keller competes with these characters (and Charles, the junkman who adores Bolivia) for the spotlight; then a mine wall collapses, killing some miners, trapping Ben Ray and others, and the disaster predominates. Covington shows, simplistically, how death energizes the living; even Sandy turns into a Good Samaritan, laying off the booze to help rescue his enemy Ben Ray, who emerges with a broken leg. Bolivia, though, is responsible for a greater miracle: After her baby is stillborn, black and white mourners come together at the funeral. That's a first. It's also a moment of excessive sweetness; all these people are just a little too good to be true, amiable lightweights, and this undercuts Covington's vision of a community bloody-but- unbowed. Decent work, then, but without much of a payoff.
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