Coal Run (Review)

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Coal Run
Tawni O'Dell, 2004
384 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
October 2010
Tawni O'Dell's turf is the coal country of southwestern Pennsylvania, and her voice the men who live in the hills and work the mines. She details their gritty, hardscrabble, sometimes violent lives: jobs lost when the mines close down, lives lost when they implode or explode.

In Coal Run, which critics consider a "near masterpiece," O'Dell writes from a masculine viewpoint. Her male voices are smart, funny, perceptive—and their characters good but scarred, like the hollowed out hills left by the mining companies. I love this writer, and I love her characters.

"The day Gertie blew"—this book's opening words—was in 1967. Ninety-six men were killed in the mine explosion that day, including 6-year-old Ivan Zoschenko's father. Thirty-some years later, Ivan returns to Coal Run and finds that Gertie's violent explosion continues to echo throughout the valley. The mines have all but closed, yet the people and memories remain.

It's unclear, at first, why Ivan comes home, but author O'Dell gradually reveals his reasons—a painful secret that has kept him from creating a full life. A case of "arrested development" if ever there was one, a grown man who sleeps on his sister's couch, except when he's passed out from drink in his truck. An accident his senior year at Penn State crushed Ivan's knee...and his chance to play football with the Chicago Bears. After all these years, the knee serves as a constant reminder of how far he has fallen—from the town's shining hero, a repository of their hopes and dreams—to a mudcaked deputy sheriff, settling fistfights over ownership of a picnic table.

Yet Ivan is endearing—at least I think so, and so does the town's beautiful new surgeon...as well as Ivan's 6-year-old nephew Eb. Some of the funniest dialogue takes place between Ivan and these two characters. It's laugh-out-loud funny. At the end, Ivan has a chance for redemption. We hope he grabs it, but it's no sure thing. This is a wonderful book—funny, poignant, and powerful.

See our Reading Guide for Coal Run.

 

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