Book Review: Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

reevesRoscoe Martin is infatuated with two things: his wife and electricity. Both end up ruining him as a husband and father, and destroy his sense of self. In rural Alabama during the 1920s, both loves become out of reach when Roscoe’s wife moves the family back to her father’s farm. Resentment festers, and Roscoe realizes that there’s one thing he can do to salvage his marriage: electrify the farm in hopes of turning it profitable. Everything goes well until a worker with Alabama Power stumbles upon Roscoe’s illegal tap on the power grid and is killed. Roscoe is sentenced to prison, and from there he watches his family drift further away while he loses more of himself. It is only after he leaves prison that he understands who he really is, and what price he really has to pay for his crimes real and imaginary.

Reeves has a talent for haunting, beautiful prose. Her Alabama is rich and vibrant, from the coal mines to rural farms and into the depths of Kilby Prison. The novel is told in two parts – Roscoe in jail in the present, and on the farm in the past – and there were times I couldn’t help but find near-similarities between Roscoe in Kilby to Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Roscoe curries favor with the guards and warden, his friend works in the woodshop and longs to see the ocean, and Roscoe works in the library and helps illiterate inmates read. This is understandable, though, since prisons offer limited work opportunities for inmates, and there are also unique aspects, such as Roscoe’s work with search dogs. The ending seems improbable for Jim Crow/Depression-era Alabama and almost hard to accept. This nice debut work has solid writing, but some structural issues keep it from being an amazing debut.

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Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/work-like-any-other/

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