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Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

It takes a very good writer to make a subject that seems dry and technical come to life as vividly and with as much imagery as a William Wordsworth poem. That’s what Virginia Reeves has done in this spectacular book: she has taken electrical engineering and imbued it with passion and starkly contrasted binary relationships. Beyond mere voltage and amps buzzing in wires, this book is a thunderstorm that casts a brilliant spotlight on the shifting dynamics of power between master and servant, nature and technology, wealth and poverty, warden and prisoner, humans and animals, and man and wife. This isn’t just a book about electricity and transformers; it is a book about power and transformation.

The electrical transformers that would one day kill George Haskin sat high on a pole about ten yards off the northeast corner of the farm where Roscoe T Martin lived with his family. There were three transformers in all, and they stepped down electricity that belonged to Alabama Power, stepped it down to run on new lines along a farm fence, then on through the woods, then straight to the farmhouse and the barn. Roscoe build the transformers himself. He built the lines. He did not have permission.

It’s the twenties and on a farm in rural Alabama, a former electrical engineer has devised a plan to bring his wife’s farm out of the red and into the modern era: he is going to steal electricity. With the help of their black farm manager, Wilson, Roscoe T Martin builds transformers and raises lines. It all seems to be going according to plan, until a man from the power company is electrocuted while investigating Martin’s handiwork, and both men are imprisoned.

The year is 1926, which seems as if it should mean something, a quarter of this century gone. I’ve been in this place for three years, and that, too, seems as if it should mean something. I just passed my thirty-third birthday, and my life has become on years before Kilby and years during. I hope for years after, but not too frequently. Hope makes disappointment that much harsher when it arrives.

From the start, I was surprised by the ease with which Reeves manages to make electrical engineering interesting. She weaves technical descriptions together with natural imagery, as the men work to cut trees that will become electricity poles. The pace of the novel is swift. It bounces between the glimmer of the idea first appearing in Martin’s mind, to his thoughts as he does time in Kilby prison, training the dogs that chase escapees, and working in the prison library. Martin, “drunk on electricity” and completely in love with this new technology, tries to force the mechanical onto the natural world, with disastrous effects. However, while he is imprisoned, his cell mate is building Alabama’s first electrical chair.

She missed Roscoe, too, but only in isolated scenes – there along the Coosa River where they would walk, an afternoon here in the farmhouse in their shared bed, the kitchen of their village house, infant Gerald in his arms. When she thought of him whole, though, she cringed. As a whole man – full up of his past and his choices and his actions – she wanted nothing to do with him.

As well as the contrast between electrical engineering and nature, Reeves examines the shifting dynamics between positions of power and submission: man and wife, master and servant, prison warden and prisoner. Martin’s relationship with his wife and son is difficult to read, as he is a likable character and his abusive actions towards them jarr with the reader’s sympathies. Another complex relationship is that between the white landowners and their black employees, who are like family to Martin’s wife but nonetheless exploited by their ‘masters’, with dire consequences. Finally, the power dynamics between educated Martin, the prisoner, and his illiterate warden, are interesting and Martin’s work with the tracker dogs is exciting to read. As all these forces tug in opposite directions, Martin is caught in the middle, and must find a way to restore balance to them.

He’ll notice the way Ed’s fingers crack along their edges, how they crack but don’t bleed. That man will never guess that those hands belong to Ed Mason, the man who built Alabama’s first electric chair. He’ll brush those hands, this ticket man in his booth. He’ll touch Ed’s hands as they make their exchange, and he won’t know what he’s touching.

This novel raises several controversial political issues as well. Firstly, it critically examines the process of incarceration that aims to “rehabilitate” white offenders while leasing black prisoners to mining companies. As the prison claims that hard labour will teach the men skills, allowing them to become productive members of society, Reeves raises the question of prisons being used for financial gain, providing cheap or even slave labor for dangerous jobs. Another issue that pops up is feminism, as Martin’s wife owns the farm, but has little power over the running of it and she is forced to be submissive by his abusive actions towards her. The third, most key issue in the novel is that of race: what happens when the roles of landowner and laborer are reversed, in a societal system that exists before the civil rights movement of the 1950s? Reeves explores each of these issues within the microcosm of her novel, looking at their effects on the characters and how they relate to each other. Her treatment of it is sensitive and authentic. I feel that these issues make this novel comparable to To Kill A Mockingbird, The Green Mile and Louis Sachar’s Holes, and it would be worth studying at a high school level, or for discussion in any book club.

I hear dogs behind me, and I crawl from the water, leaving prints of my hands and feet in the mud. The possum oak spreads itself wide over the creek, its branches forking with their spoon-shaped leaves, wide at the tips and narrow at the base. It’s kind enough to offer a few low branches, and I pull myself up to them with a moan I can’t contain. It’s an old man’s moan, and I’m worried to house it.

Work Like Any Other is complexly built but simply experienced. There are multiple forces acting on the characters at all times, primarily in the binary dynamics of their relationships to each other, and the sociological forces of their time. It’s a carefully constructed exploration of power in many forms. It’s also a gripping story with a vivid sense of place and time, with characters that make you care. Virginia Reeves is an author to watch and I highly recommend reading this book.