Triumphantly fulfilling the promise of her bestselling debut (Back Roads, 2000), O’Dell examines the tangled, enduring bonds of family and community in a Pennsylvania mining town.
After 16 years in Florida, Ivan Zoschenko has come back to Coal Run as deputy to its easygoing sheriff, who seems unfazed by his crippled knee and heavy drinking. To the locals, Ivan is still the legendary college football player destined for the pros until he injured himself in a freak accident at the abandoned mine where his father and 96 other men died in an explosion when Ivan was 6. The sense of having let them down drove him to drink and to Florida, but as the story unfolds in a narrative that mingles present-day action with Ivan's memories, we realize that guilt over a graver misdeed also fuels his self-destructive behavior. Once again, O’Dell inhabits a male mind with sensitivity and acuity. Ivan's cluelessness about women would seem improbable if his first-person narration didn’t reveal emotional scars that blinker his probing intelligence. The author surrounds her hero with full-bodied, vividly rendered characters: his proudly sexual, fiercely independent sister; the Vietnam vet he adored as a boy; his uncomplaining mother, irreparably wounded by her beloved husband’s death; and Reese Raynor, Ivan’s dark shadow, who beat his young wife into a coma and whose release from jail propels the plot. O’Dell doesn’t soften the lasting damage inflicted on Coal Run and its inhabitants by the J&P Coal Company (all the more contemptible because the characters take it for granted), but against it she sets a passionate affirmation of the communal ties that send the local doctor out to give vaccinations to poor kids and bring everyone to the old mine each year for a memorial service to the dead miners. The tendency to melodrama that occasionally marred her first book is transformed here into a searing tragic vision of working-class people whose dignity comes from stoically doing their jobs, a phrase repeated with increasing resonance as the novel closes with the suggestion that Ivan can now move toward reconciliation with the past and hope for the future.
Powerful and uncompromising, yet radiant with love: this one's pretty close to a masterpiece.