You would think a book starring a woman who lost her mother at an early age, was smacked around by her dad, raised dirt-poor, acted as a mother to her younger sister (who disappeared at age 16 and hasn't been seen for nearly 20 years), got pregnant at age 16 after being raped, and had recently resigned the police force in an economically depressed mining town to own and operate her own cab company -- such a book sounds utterly tragic, and no fun at all, right? Not if the book in question is Sister Mine by Tawni O'Dell.
The woman in question above is Shae-Lynn Penrose, who is a true survivor with a sense of humor, tough, smart and with a strong sense of justice (early in the book, she gets toseed from a bar for starting a fight with a man who neglects his kids). As I described above, Shae-Lynn's overcome a lot in her life, but through the course of the book, is forced to deal with it all afresh when two strangers come to town separately, each looking for the sister who had disappeared all those years ago. Shae-Lynn has believed that her father beat her to death, but the strangers seems to know Shannon, and even have pictures. It's not long before Shannon herself reappears on the scene, as if she'd only been gone for a few days, and is full of lies and contradictions.
Shae-Lynn spends much of the rest of the book unraveling what Shannon's been up to for the past two decades, and what the strangers want from her. She also spends it trying to help her friends. Her town is a coal-mining town, and a year earlier, five of her close friends made national news when they were trapped in a cave-in. They got a book deal and a movie deal out of it, but it hasn't improved their lives much. all are, in different ways, coping with the aftereffects of not only the trauma, but the short-lived fame. Shae-Lynn is also working out her complicated feelings towards one of them, and as if all this weren't enough, is also forced to deal with the man who raped her so many years ago, whose identity she's kept secret, even from her son.
While this book has some of the usual elements of "chick lit" (strong female protagonist, romantic subplot, liberal doses of humor), it goes a little beyond that. For one thing, this isn't a book about the bonds between women, despite the title. Shae-Lynn is more at home among men, and although she has good relationships with several women, she doesn't seem as strongly connected to them as she is to the men in her life. Although Shae-lynn is a mother, and acted as a mother to her sister all her life, the book isn't strictly about motherhood, either. Finally, there's a lack of glamour. Shae-Lynn's hometown is not a glamorous place. It's hard, dirty, and poor, and when Shae-Lynn talks with the wives of the miners, you can almost hear the practical haircuts and utilitarian clothes.
Serious sub-themes run throughout the book: economic exploitation (frequent mention is made of the lazy, entitled, man who owns the mines); military exploitation (the Marines work hard to recruit students from the high school, knowing that with little other opportunity, they're likely to hop on the chance to get out of town); child absue and neglect (Shae-Lynn's childhood is mirrored by a 12-year-old girl named Fanci, who we first meet when she's attempting to trade her 4-year-old brother for a cab ride to the mall, and who reappears periodically throughout the book); and the whole question of what the law does and doesn't allow (read the book and you'll catch this one).
I just happened to grab this one because it was in the "New Acquisitions" section, but I'm glad I did. O'Dell has apparently written two other books, and I'll have to look for them the next time I'm near a library. I wonder if she is going to write other books about any of the characters in Sister Mine. I think that Shae-Lynn is a strong and charismatic heroine and would enjoy watching her negotiate other challenges and situations. I hope she does.