Eschewing the melodramatic excesses of Sister Mine (2007), O’Dell crafts a strong, moving story about a rich old lady and two poor boys who help each other overcome shattering losses.
As the novel opens, Kyle and Klint Hayes’ father has just been killed while driving drunk; Candace Jack’s matador lover was gored to death by a bull in 1959. The 76-year-old Candace has never really recovered from the loss of Manuel Obrador. She returned to America with both the bull that killed Manuel and his teenaged sword page; now Luis serves as Candace’s cook and cranky voice of reason while a descendant of Calladito roams the grounds surrounding her mansion in Centresburg, the desolate western Pennsylvania town that serves as O’Dell’s Yoknapatawpha County. Readers of the author’s earlier books already know that J&P Coal made the Jack family rich while it sucked the life from men like Kyle and Klint’s father, poisoned the land, then shut down the mines and left the area’s residents to scrabble for a living. Klint, a high-school baseball star, might escape via an athletic scholarship; Kyle doesn’t know what he can do with the artistic ability that makes him a misfit in his blue-collar community. The boys’ mother Rhonda split years ago, and she’s happy to relinquish her sons for $15,000 from Candace, who’s been persuaded by her great-niece—as well as by ornery delight in infuriating her über-capitalist nephew—to take them in. Sensitive, observant Kyle, sophisticated, salt-of-the-earth Luis and cantankerous Candace rotate as narrators, showing the grief-stricken boys and the walled-off woman tentatively forging a healing connection until the return of monstrous Rhonda provokes a crisis. O’Dell’s eye for class conflict remains as sharp as ever, but she’s broadened the reach of her sympathies, tamed her taste for lurid plotting and found new depths in her subject matter and her human understanding.
Not her best novel—that remains the towering Coal Run (2004), for now—but her most mature, opening new paths for this talented writer.