Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Glimpse of Coal Country

Coal Run, by Tawni O'Dell, is an interesting look at the characters who spring up, almost as from the mines, in coal country. The story begins with a flashback to a massive coal mine explosion that kills over half the male population of Coal Run, PA. The writer so clearly describes the sequence of events that led to the explosion -- it reminded me of the Upper Branch disaster that occurred in April this year. And although the impact on the families at Upper Branch is yet to be written in the long-term, this book gives an eloquent picture of how more than a mine is destroyed when such a disaster occurs.

The extremely flawed hero of the book, the great Ivan Z, was able to escape becoming a coal miner by being an outstanding football player. Yet, when the story begins he's back in Coal Run (why is part of the story), broken and largely hopeless, trying to come to terms with the legacy of the mines.

The characters in this novel are exquisitely crafted. Jolene the beauty queen, Ivan's sister, is as beautiful and sensual as she is kind and loving. The Sheriff and Dr. John create boundaries for Ivan through their presence, without stripping his dignity (he manages to do that on his own). The spectre of Reese Raynor's return from prison hangs over the story as Ivan fears the impact of this violent man.  In response to the events of his own life, Ivan continues to self-destruct with alcohol, yet there's something decent in him that compels the reader to keep caring about whether he's going to make it back to life. It's the decency in which he visits Reese Raynor's wife, Crystal, who lays in a coma because of Reese's violence. It's the decency in which Ivan spends time with his youngest nephew trying to fit into the uncomfortable hero image only a six year old can craft. And it's the decency in which Ivan approaches Val, his childhood hero, who returns to Coal Run for the first time in many years for the funeral of the old woman whose life and death draws them all together.

The novel is gritty. There's lots of alcohol, a fair amount of sex and lots of profanity. None of it is gratuitous - it all fits the setting and the story. The description of the mine, and the causes of the explosion are sadly, all too familiar from this spring. This book isn't about the conflict between mine owners and miners, or profits and a decent living though. It's about a hard working, hard drinking community that manages to survive despite the worst that can happen to it.

The blogger listened to it on CD and the narrator was amazing. There were many driveway moments in this book, and no fairy tale ending, but a satisfying one nonetheless.

It's under FIC ODE at FCPL and there are 15 copies available today.  Check it out!

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