Fragile Beasts (O'Dell)

Fragile Beasts
Tawni O'Dell, 2010
Shaye Areheart Books
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307351685

When their hard-drinking, but loving, father dies in a car accident, teenage brothers Kyle and Klint Hayes face a bleak prospect: leaving their Pennsylvania hometown for an uncertain life in Arizona with the mother who ran out on them years ago. But in a strange twist of fate, their town’s matriarch, an eccentric, wealthy old woman whose family once owned the county coal mines, hears the boys’ story. Candace Jack doesn’t have an ounce of maternal instinct, yet for reasons she does not even understand herself, she is compelled to offer them a home.

Suddenly, the two boys go from living in a small, run-down house on a gravel road to a stately mansion filled with sumptuous furnishings and beautiful artwork—artwork that’s predominantly centered, oddly, on bullfighting. And then there’s Miss Jack’s real-life bull: Ventisco—a regal, hulking, jet-black beast who roams the land she owns with fiery impudence.

Kyle adjusts more easily to the transition. A budding artist, he finds a kindred spirit in Miss Jack. But local baseball hero Klint refuses to warm up to his new benefactress and instead throws himself into his game with a fierceness that troubles his little brother. Klint is not just grieving his father’s death; he’s carrying a terrible secret that he has never revealed to anyone. Unbeknownst to the world, Candace Jack has a secret too—a tragic, passionate past in Spain that the boys’ presence threatens to reveal as she finds herself caring more for them than she ever believed possible.

From the muted, bruised hills of Pennsylvania coal country to the colorful, flamboyant bull rings of southern Spain, Tawni O’Dell takes us on a riveting journey not only between two completely different lands, but also between seemingly incompatible souls, casting us under her narrative spell in which characters and places are rendered with fragile tenderness. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
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. (From Wikipedia.)

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 the author's website.)

Book Reviews 
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

Fragile Beasts marks an impressive step forward for the talented O'Dell, who has broadened her horizons without abandoning her home turf.
Chicago Tribune

With deft prose, authenticity of character, and sheer tenderness, O’ the absolute master of her craft.
Denver Post

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.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In her fourth outing, novelist O’Dell returns to Pennsylvania coal country for more dysfunctional family drama. When teenage brothers Klint and Kyle, having already been abandoned by their mother, are left orphaned by the death of their father, they’re unexpectedly taken in by an elderly, “filthy rich” recluse named Candace Jack, known for her family’s mining company, J&P Coal. Taking in the two working-class kids, Candace is reminded of her own emotional wounds (a heart long-broken by the violent death of her bullfighter fiancé), and the damaged trio grope their way toward healing amid heated cultural and generational clashes. Under Candace’s roof, likable and inquisitive Kyle begins to develop artistic skills, while sullen baseball prodigy Klint immerses himself even further in sports. When Kyle and Klint’s cold-hearted mom appears, looking to get at Candace’s money, a series of near-tragic events and terrible revelations ensue. O’Dell can overdo the sentiment, but she’s a pro at capturing dialogue, and some characters’ wisecracks are laugh-out-loud funny. Though predictable, this gritty novel is a memorable read.
Publishers Weekly

Their father's sudden, violent death leaves two teenaged brothers devastated. Troubled Klint, a gifted athlete especially close to his dad, shared a love of baseball with him; artistic Kyle also shared this bond. When their mother, who had abandoned the boys, appears at the funeral, she demands they move to Arizona with her, leaving their Pennsylvania coal country roots; the boys voice strong protests. In steps reclusive septuagenarian coal heiress Candace Jack, who decides, somewhat on a dare, to raise the brothers. Her mysterious, vague background includes a love of Spain and ownership of a fighting bull wandering over her vast property. Rocky roads are ahead for the newly created "family," but, overall, so are great rewards. Verdict: O'Dell's love for the fallen-on-hard-times coal country shines through in her fourth novel (after Sister Mine, Coal Run, and Back Roads). A unique blend of such disparate elements as baseball, bullfighting, and fine art along with O'Dell's multifaceted major and minor characters combine for intriguing vision. Her hard-hitting, well-crafted story packs a wallop. —Andrea Tarr, Corona P.L., CA
Library Journal

In this tough and tender tale, O’Dell’s triumphant portrait of loss and rejection, sanctuary and redemption, shines with poignancy, dignity, and transcendent joy. —Carol Haggas

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 uber-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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Fragile Beasts:

1. Who in this story are the "fragile beasts" of the title...and in what ways are they "beasts," as well as "fragile"?

2. Talk about the way in which this observation about bull fighting, taken from the novel's prologue, establishes the an ongoing motif throughout the novel:

[Candace] immediately embraced the almost carnal pleasure and the horror of watching a lone man using elegance and restraint to control a dangerous wild animal, to take the creature’s fear and anger and his own fear and anger and turn it into something solemn and beautiful and for one brief shining moment, something heroic for both man and beast.

3. What kind of character is Candace Jack—how would you describe her? What prompts her to take the boys in after their father's death?

4. Talk about the two brothers, Kyle and Klint, and their relationship with one another, as well as with their dead father. In what ways are the brothers different from one another?

5. What are the rumors surrounding Candace and her wild bull. What's it doing there—and can you discern the bull's thematic significance to the novel?

6. Luis says of Candace, "She's not hollow, broken, numb, or hardened; she's simply unreachable." In what way has Candace allowed the past to trap her?

7. Talk about Luis, one of the books most intriguing characters. Why is he so devoted to Candace? In what way does he claim that she is his "wife"?

8. Talk about the role that the Spanish culture plays in this story. In what way does she connect Spain with the local of the novel, Western Pennsylvania?

9. Don't you just love to hate Rhonda? What about Cam Jack?

10. Talk about the issues of class that O'Dell ferrets out in her novel—between those who once owned the mines and those who worked them.

11. What do you make of the prejudice toward scholastic achievement? Consider this sentence "Everyone I know equates being smart with being stuck up." Is that attitude peculiar to this stretch of geography...or is it prevalent in society as a whole? What is it based on?

12. What was your experience reading this work? Some reviewers have talked about its darkness, others the humor. What about the novel's ending—did you find it satisfying?

13. Have you read any of Tawni O'Dell's other novels? Is so, how does this one compare? If you haven't, are you inspired to read more of her books?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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