Sister Mine, O'Dell's third
Back Roads and Coal Run, is a
raucous, action-driven read with a cast of
robust characters including hard-talking Shae-Lynn,
a Russian gangster, a sleazy New York lawyer, a
dastardly mine owner and a wayward sister. In fact,
it's such a fun read that it's easy to overlook that
at its heart are powerful issues that explore the
price we put on human life in various contexts and
from several perspectives.
Like O'Dell's earlier two books, the setting is a small town in Pennsylvania that was founded and grew on coal, but now, with the mines closing, has lost its purpose and is losing its cohesion. Twenty-four years ago, Shae-Lynn left the area with her baby son, Clay, to escape her abusive father. She became the first in her family to attend college, went on to become a police officer, and raised Clay single-handedly; but she never got rid of the guilt of leaving her younger sister behind, especially when six years after she left her sister went missing.
Shae-Lynn and Clay are now back in Jolly Mount, where he is deputy sheriff and she drives a cab. She keeps her emotional distance from her friends with her sharp tongue, and those who would be her enemies know to keep their distance or risk being laid out with a right hook.
O'Dell's depiction of the problems facing the local community gives voice to those who often go overlooked. It is quite clear that she not only cares deeply for the people but also has great respect for them, while remaining open-eyed to their faults. She also has much to say about communities that turn a blind eye to family violence and on military recruiters who loiter with intent outside the high schools and sporting facilities of poorer communities and on the moral issues of buying and selling babies. All in all, this is an entertaining, thought-provoking book with a memorable central character that, with luck, will turn up in another O'Dell book sometime soon.
In an old bio Tawni O'Dell says, "All my life I have struggled with .... being an educated woman saddled with a biker chick's name. A theme that often appears in my work is one of characters' struggling to define themselves among people who already defined them wrongly because of a stereotype, or their own inability to look past a person's surface and see inside them. I've frequently had to deal with the danger of being mislabeled." With this in mind, and O'Dell's choice of Shae Lynn as her lead character, you may find this article titled Names and Personality of interest.
In an essay about Sister Mine, O'Dell explains that the central theme of the book is "about human capital: how we buy and sell human life, both figuratively and literally, on a broad scope as a society and on an intimate scope in our daily lives in our personal relationships." One of the book's side plots is about the military recruiters who are a ubiquitous presence in the local malls, high schools and sporting events of the blue collar ex-mining towns where O'Dell and her heroine Shae-Lynn live. More about this in the sidebar.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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