This first novel lovingly parses a mid-1970s western Pennsylvania community of farmers and miners, largely of Eastern European descent, whose way of life is coming apart as the coal mines close.
Thirteen-year-old Lucas’s handsome and universally respected and loved father Jimmy died in a mining explosion years earlier. Now Lucas’s adored mother Mirjana has disappeared, leaving behind only a short note. Staying with his feisty grandmother, nicknamed Slats, Lucas grudgingly finds himself enfolded into his large extended family, centered on Great-grandfather, the family patriarch. Confused and lonely, Lucas wants only to find his mother, but he is not the only one desperate to find Mirjana. Her current boyfriend Zoli, whose love for Mirjana borders on obsession, tries to kidnap Lucas from an Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve celebration at Great-grandfather’s farm and then burns down Great-grandfather’s sacred pear tree that he brought with him from Slovenia. As Lucas hunts for clues to his mother’s whereabouts, Zoli turns increasingly menacing in his frantic pursuit. The level of violence escalates. Zoli almost kills Jimmy’s best friend Marko when Marko takes the blame for burning down Zoli’s house, a fire he knows Lucas started. But despite arson and beatings, the novel’s primary mood is sorrow. Memories of life before Jimmy’s death offer a vivid counterpoint to the unhappy present, especially as Great-grandfather’s health fails and Lucas learns the sad truth that Mirjana is not in California as Slats has implied, but has committed herself into a local mental hospital. Seliy brings the dying working class town of Banning into sharp relief. She captures its bleak everyday rhythm punctuated by weddings, funerals and mining disasters, and she creates a population of characters, including Zoli—in a lesser novel he would be pure villain—heart-wrenching in their sense of loss and capacity for love.
Deeply felt and written with immaculate care to create a fictional world that feels truly lived in.