I fell in love with Tawni O'Dell's work with her first novel, Back Roads, a work set in the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania. Since that time, I have looked forward to all of O'Dell's works. (Her second book, Coal Run, is my favorite). When she came to speak at our local library two years ago, I was in heaven. And she was as great in person as she was on the page!
Her latest book, One of Us, returns to a setting that is familiar to me and to all of her fans: the Western Pennsylvania hills where coal mines lay abandoned and small towns rest in rural poverty. In this story, Dr. Sheridan Doyle, a small town boy that "made good" (a saying I heard a lot growing up about people who left my own small town, became educated, and earned a lot of money) returns to Lost Creek, the place where he is from, to take care of his aging grandfather and his mentally ill mother. During his visit, he comes face-to-face with a murder that opens up the town's dark history of violence and injustice.
O'Dell grapples with both family and local history in One of Us, introducing the Nellies (a group that echoes the history and legends of Pennsylvania's Molly Maguires) and taking on the task of describing the impact of mine disasters on small communities. Certainly, her best characters are the ones who are part of this setting: a small town detective who is both gruff and kind; an aging grandfather who is part of the town's coal mining history; an alcoholic father who is weighed down with both coal dust and personal ghosts. The main character, Sheridan Doyle ("Danny" to most of the characters in the book) is both sympathetic and interesting and the readers will find themselves rooting for him to make peace with both the town's secrets and his family's dark past.
The only "bump" that I saw in this novel was the introduction of Scarlet -- the cruel daughter of the family who owns the mines. While her part is indeed important to the overall plot of the novel, I often dreaded the chapters where her voice took over, telling the stories of her own life and her malicious perceptions of the people around her.
All in all, O'Dell's latest work is a great addition to her line of books. I will never grow tired of reading about the Pennsylvania landscape (yes, I am biased, since it's my world), and I will always be fond of the stories she tells in her pages.