Book Review: One of Us by Tawni O’Dell
I love Tawni O’Dell’s books. Like me, she is a product of a southwestern Pennsylvania coal mining community. O’Dell, who was raised near Indiana, Pennsylvania, writes about the lives of miners and their families – their trials and triumphs, mysteries and legends. When I read O’Dell’s first book, Back Roads, I was glad that finally, someone was writing about the western Pennsylvania where I was raised. O’Dell knows what it was like when the local mine was the center of life, as well as what happened when that center was no longer there. My father died of black lung disease in 1975 and the mine in my hometown closed down in the early 1980s, but I will always be a coal miner’s daughter. O’Dell knows that no matter if you stay or leave – the mine will always be a part of you.
In One of Us, renowned Philadelphia forensic psychologist Dr. Sheridan Doyle returns to his hometown of Lost Creek. The town was the site of the hanging of four rebellious Irish miners a century ago. Some people have claimed ghost sightings of the men, which attracted television crews to the town in search of paranormal activity. But even without ghosts, the descendants of the miners and the mine owner responsible for their deaths keep their memory alive. When Danny returns home to visit his nonagenarian grandfather, a series of murders occurs. Danny discovers that as much as he doesn’t want to identify with Lost Creek, it is his home. In spite of his designer clothes and Ivy League education, he is haunted by the coal-mining fate that he escaped, the father that abused him, and his mentally ill mother who spent years in jail for a crime that she claimed she did not commit.
“The truth is I’ve never belonged anywhere, and as much as I hate to admit it to myself, I wouldn’t have minded belonging somewhere.” Danny becomes involved in the investigation of the murders and even faces one of his greatest fears to help a troubled coal miner. He discovered that things are not always what they seem to be, not even in his own family. When the local historical society unveils a statute to commemorate the hanged miners, the image they select made me cry. It sums up what I feel about my own coal miner father. By the end of the story, Danny makes peace with his father and takes his grandfather to the land of their ancestors to lay to rest part of their past.
My only complaint about O’Dell’s books is that she concentrates on the tragedies of former company towns. In spite of being ostracized and teased like Danny, there is no other place that I would have wanted to live. I remember being soothed by the constant sound of trains, which meant that everything was running smoothly at Montour 4 Mine and my father would be coming home that day. My neighbors could be annoying and noisy at times, but in times of trouble, I knew I could count on them to be there for me. O’Dell gives glimpses of the love and loyalty that residents have for their hometown and each other, but I would like her to show more. Check out One of Us, as well as O’Dell’s other four books.