Tawni O'Dell, 2004
Penguin Group USA
With her eagerly awaited second novel, after Back Roads, Tawni O'Dell takes readers back to the coal-mining country of western Pennsylvania.
Set in a town ravaged and haunted by a mine explosion that took the lives of 96 men, Coal Run explores the life of local deputy and erstwhile football legend, "The Great Ivan Z.," as he prepares for a former teammate's imminent release from prison.
As the week unfolds and Ivan struggles to confront his demons, he reveals himself to be a man whose conscience is burdened by a long-held and shocking secret. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA
• Education—B.A. Northwest University
• Currently—lives in Pennsylvania
Tawni O'Dell is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Fragile Beasts, Sister Mine, Coal Run, and Back Roads, which was an Oprah's Book Club pick and a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection. She is also a contributor to several anthologies including Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female. Her work has been translated into 8 languages and been published in 20 countries.
Born and raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, O'Dell graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. She lived for many years in the Chicago area before moving back to Pennsylvania, where she now lives with her two children and her husband, literary translator Bernard Cohen. (From Wikipedia.)
A work of stark grandeur with powerful emotional links to the under-appreciated masterpieces of John Steinbeck and Clifford Odets, yet with a tender empathy all her own...It's a pleasure to see such a gifted, ambitious writer reinvigorating the tradition of social conscience combined with personal passion that has illuminated some of the finest, most moving works in American literature.
Los Angeles Times
Ivan is the proverbial angry young man, only he's not so young anymore…Ivan's sister, Jolene, who works as a waitress and is raising three children who have three different fathers is that fictional rarity, the believable working-class character…O'Dell has an ear for the telling detail.
O'Dell is an accomplished writer; assured and perceptive, she is especially good with quick dialogue that captures the anger and disappointment these characters carry.
Utterly compelling…O'Dell illuminates timeless issues with keen insight…this is a smart book filled with sympathetic, opinionated characters who may be victims of circumstance but are never victims of ignorance or self-pity.
O'Dell explores the dynamics of a tiny Pennsylvania coal-mining town in her probing, heartbreaking second novel, which centers on the fortunes of former college football hero Ivan Zoschenko. The novel literally opens with a bang in a flashback that recalls the tragic underground explosion that took the life of Zoschenko's father and killed 96 other men from Coal Run. Some 15 years later, just after Zoschenko is drafted by the Chicago Bears, his knee is crushed in an accident in the same mines. His subsequent fall from grace is long and hard; he moves to Florida, hits the bars and works as an exterminator. He returns home only when he hears that Reese Raynor, a former schoolmate who beat his wife, Crystal, into a coma, is being released from prison. Despite his drinking problem, Zoschenko is hired as a deputy by the local sheriff, getting back in touch with his gorgeous sister, a single mom and career waitress; his boyhood hero, now a reclusive Vietnam vet; Reese's troubled twin brother, Jesse; and Crystal, who is still comatose and reminds Zoschenko of a shameful incident in his past. That past is linked to Reese Raynor's, and the novel builds to the inevitable brutal collision of the two men. O'Dell's portrait of Zoschenko is deep and penetrating, but even more moving is her portrayal of the coal-town community. Ravaged by disaster and callous corporate treatment, the citizens of Coal Run still can't imagine any other life. As Zoschenko puts it, "Long before [the mine] became the site of so much death, it had been a source of life for all of us. For me it was the closest thing I had to God." Though it occasionally flirts with sentimentality, this is a fierce, sharply drawn and richly sympathetic tribute to working-class America.
As she did in her acclaimed debut, Back Roads, O'Dell displays a marvelous gift for serving up eccentric, believable characters and vividly captures the bleakness and harshness of coal-mining country…Captivating.
Triumphantly fulfilling the promise of her bestselling debut (Back Roads), O'Dell examines the tangled, enduring bonds of family and community in a Pennsylvania mining town…Once again, O'Dell inhabits a male mind with sensitivity and acuity…[a] searing, tragic vision of working-class people…Powerful and uncompromising, yet radiant with love, this one's pretty close to a masterpiece.
1. Lost identity is a recurring theme in this book, both locally, in the Pennsylvania boys’ forgetting their hometowns, and in a larger sense, in Americans’ forgetting their ethnic identities. From tales of Magadan to the portrait of Volodymyr that sits above the Zoschenko dinner table, allusions to Ivan’s father’s former life in Ukraine and Russia are made throughout the novel. Discuss what Ivan’s heritage means to him.
2. The land of Coal Run is inexplicably, irrevocably part of each character, drawing back those who leave it. Discuss each of the very different homecomings of the book—those of Val, Reese Raynor, Ivan, and John Harris. What is it that ties each character to the town?
3. Compare Ivan as a little boy to Ivan as the narrator of the novel. How does his voice change? How are his relationships to Val and Eb similar?
4. Ivan loses his father, uncle, and grandfather in the Gertie mine explosion and Val to the Vietnam War, then denies the existence of his own son. None of Jolene’s three sons have any kind of relationship with their fathers. Discuss the lack of male role models and father figures throughout the book. How does this affect the men of each generation?
5. The loss of Ivan’s knee, his heroic self, and his chance to forever leave Coal Run all occur at Gertie. Discuss the significance of his choice to self-destruct at that location.
6. The burning land of Coal Run, with its simmering unstoppable fires beneath the surface, literally sucks down people, homes, and objects to its fiery depths. The festering rage of each character similarly manifests itself with violence. Discuss how the violence and anger of Bobbie, Reese, and Ivan differ.
7. Discuss the role of women in this town that is defined by mining, a very male profession. Ivan’s mother, his sister Jolene, Zo—are they better at coping with tragedy? Are they stronger?
8. In many ways Zo and Dr. Ed mastermind the fates of several of the characters, guiding their fates, yet without reprimand or condemnation. Dr. Ed anonymously sends the clipping to Ivan. Zo leaves her home to Jolene and her grandson, forever tying Randy to Coal Run. Discuss the silent but strong (and effective) techniques of this generation.
9. Ivan’s father is able to separate the profession of coal mining from the fact that he learned it while in Siberia at a work camp. Reese, though an abusive husband and a murderer, at one time behaved honorably by marrying Crystal when Ivan would not. But Ivan cannot separate his identity as a football hero and town figure from who he is inside as a person. Discuss how profession and the ability to provide shape male identity. How is male identity tied to duty?
10. The demons of the past haunt several characters, most notably Ivan. How does the past literally and figuratively cripple him and prevent him from embarking on a future of any kind?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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