Monday, August 25, 2008


Coal Run, Tawni O'Dell, Viking Penguin, 2004, 351 pp

This is her second novel, preceded by Back Roads and followed by Sister Mine. I've now read all of them. Once again she writes about the depressed coal mining region of Pennsylvania but of the three novels, I would say this is her weakest.

The story opens explosively when a mine blows and many men are killed. Ivan Zoschenko is just three years old when he loses his father in the debacle. Then it is 30 years later and Ivan is telling his story: how he adopted his next door neighbor Val as a father figure, how he grew up to become a football hero but then missed out on a pro career due to an injury, how he went off to Florida and became a zero to his family.

Now he is back because his old nemesis is about to be released from prison. He is working as a law enforcement deputy, drinking heavily and harbors a dark secret.

O'Dell has created her usual cast of strong but flawed characters and evokes the small town just as well as in the other books. The story kept me hooked. What left me less than impressed was Ivan's voice, which was inconsistent and often sounded nothing like a man in his early 30s.

So, good story, great characters, excellent sense of place with weak narrator. Well, Ivan was a pretty weak guy and at the end he is still weak. He faced some demons but he didn't grow, which is perhaps appropriate for a miner's son.

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