It may not be true that you can never go home again. Literature, as in life, is full of homecomings. What is always interesting is a person's motivation for returning home after a long absence, especially the motivation of a person who has deliberately distanced themselves from their hometown and past. What drove them away in the first place and what draws them back, and why now? What and where is home, really? These are questions explored in Tawni O'Dell's wonderful new novel, COAL RUN.
COAL RUN is the story of a small mining town, its inhabitants, its pride and shame, its tragic past and its hope for the future, all exemplified by the narrator, Ivan Zoschenko. Ivan, the town's most famous export, has returned home many years after leaving to play college and professional football. After a career-ending injury he moved to Florida hoping to leave his home and memories behind him. Ivan was one of the many residents who lost loved ones in a mining accident in 1967. But it wasn't really the loss of his father and other relatives that drove him away. Ivan carries a great and dark secret, and his return is partially inspired by the release from prison of Reese Raynor, a former teammate.
Ivan is not the only one coming home; his childhood hero, Val Claypool, has returned as well. As Ivan spends a week in the western Pennsylvanian town he thought he'd never live in again, he is confronted by all the hurt in his entire past and by the damage he feels he must inflict on another.
Why does Ivan want to kill Reese? Why has Val returned? What is Ivan's connection to the woman lying in a coma in a local nursing home? And who else knows Ivan's secret? COAL RUN is not a mystery, but as Ivan's story unfolds, these questions are answered and O'Dell gives the reader a vivid portrait of a small and wounded town, and a man struggling with his past and his future.
All of O'Dell's characters are interesting, intriguing and real. Ivan is a classic wounded hero, and the emotional journey he takes in the course of the novel is immensely readable. There are many sympathetic characters in COAL RUN, including Ivan's beautiful and independent sister, Jolene, her sons, his mother, the local doctor and the ghost of Ivan's father, who looms large throughout.
The coming home story is a genre unto itself. And O'Dell is perfect in her telling of this tale of redemption, family, regret, hope and home. She never resorts to the simple quirkiness of many "small town" tales or the morose and sappy stories of miners, although this is a novel set in a small mining town. Instead, COAL RUN is original and filled with wonderful humanity. Ivan Zoschenko is a likeable, though flawed protagonist. O'Dell has created a world that is touchingly real and that challenges the characters to sort out life's complexities and to face heartbreak and pain without giving up hope.
So many positive adjectives apply to COAL RUN: engaging, poignant, heroic. This is simply a great book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011