All of us have secrets...some are pretty mundane, and others are life-altering. Tawni O'Dell's main characters trend towards the second (well, a book about an adult who stole a necklace from her best friend in second grade does not hold much appeal for anyone, does it?). Her character's secrets would be described by others as "shocking", but the thing about shock is that it wears off. It's to O'Dell's credit that she doesn't build towards a shocker ending. Instead, she sprinkles liberal hints about the nature of the secret throughout the book. As you're observing the main character, and hearing his or her thoughts (O'Dell writes in the first person), you start to suspect it, so when the narrator finally levels with the reader about the secret, you feel like you've known it all along, because you've come to know the main character and understand what he or she has been living with.
Coal Run is set in the same Western PA mining town as Sister Mine, and the narrator of Coal Run even makes an appearance in Sister Mine. They don't really hinge on each other, they just exist in the same reality. But still, I wish I'd read them in order so I could look for the characters from Coal Run.
It's the story of Ivan Zoschenko, who lost his father at an early age to an explosion in the coal mine, as did half of his peers. He was a gifted football player and had just inked a deal with the Chicago Bears when a serious injury (non-football related, but it's part of the plot of the book) ended his career. After an eight-year absence, he's returned to Coal Run as a deputy sheriff. The book is set during one eventful week, where he attends the funeral of his mother's best friend, gets auctioned off in a hospital charity event (dinner with him, anyway), is reunited with his much-changed childhood idol, and prepares for the release of a violent felon.
The characters in this book, as in all of her books, are really what makes the story. Ivan's sister Jolene, is a waitress with high spirits, three boys by three different men, and a former pageant queen who competed because she loved the crowns. Dr. Ed is a 70-year-old pediatrician who feels so strongly about the welfare of his charges that he makes house calls and vaccinates children for free, by force if he has to. Zo Craig is dead by the time the book opens, but manages to direct events and help her former friends and neighbors from beyond the grave.
Of the three books, this is where you'll find the most even mixture of comedy and tragedy. In Coal Run, tragedy scars the landscape. Over 100 men were killed in the mine that day, and their widows and children lived in the shadow of it until mine fires made the town unliveable and everyone was moved out and the houses bulldozed. There is also a great deal of personal tragedy. As with O'Dell's other books, domestic violence, alcoholism, maiming injuries, abandonment, and early death are the fabric of the lives of the people of Coal Run, and Ivan is coping from the fallout of an incident that shocked even them. There's also the loss of potential. Ivan is the most glaringly obvious example, but Jolene was stripped of her Miss Pennsylvania title when she became pregnant. Ivan's boyhood hero Val lost his leg in Vietnam. Ivan's former teammate also had the potential to turn pro, but turned his back on it for the same kind of life his father and grandfather had led, working the mines in Coal Run.
But there's also a lot of humor. Ivan's job takes him out to bust up a fight over ownership of a picnic table: one of the combatants had bought it, but a storm blew it into the creek and it washed up on the property of the other combatant. His sister defuses a potentially violent situation by taking off her dress; it distracts the man just long enough for Ivan to knock him out. Like the rest of O'Dell's work, it's an excellent read. But I feel a little sad now. This is all there is, for now. Sister Mine just came out, so we'll probably have to wait another couple of years for a new one from O'Dell. It will be worth it, though.