Kyle and Klint Hayes are a freshman and junior in the high school of a slowly dying western Pennsylvania coal town. Tawni O’Dell’s latest novel set in that hardscrabble part of the country, Fragile Beasts, opens just after the sudden death of the boys’ father in a truck accident—leaving them virtually orphans, since their self-centered mother, lacking a single maternal skill, took their younger sister and moved to Arizona three years ago with “some guy we’d never heard of.”
Kyle is the quiet, thoughtful, studious brother—and artistic, a fact he tries vainly to hide from the school’s roughneck element, which considers “artistic” another word for “gay.” And Kyle is decidedly not gay—he spends much of his time dreaming about Shelby Jack, the daughter of Cam Jack, who owns the J & P coal mine where Kyle and Klint’s dad worked before an injury landed him in a dead-end janitorial job.
Klint, the gifted baseball star hoping to ride out of town on a scholarship, has little interest in much of anything except baseball for the last several years, and is devastated by his father’s death.
At this point O’Dell introduces her third central character—Candace Jack, Cam Jack’s aunt. She’s filthy rich, “old and mean” and “hates just about everybody,” according to most townsfolk. She has a sad, little-known history involving a love affair 47 years earlier with a Spanish bullfighter who died before her eyes—a tragedy from which she’s never really recovered.
Somehow O’Dell is able to meld these two unlikely plots into a coherent and compelling novel, as Candy Jack’s ancient loss and the loneliness and rejection experienced by Kyle and Klint seem to come together to benefit and enrich each of them. With acute perception and just a touch of humor, O’Dell touches on issues as disparate as the loss of love, unabashed greed, competitive sports and the complexities of aging. Candy Jack is now 77, and “neither impressed by [her] accomplishments nor hampered by regrets.” And after meeting Kyle and Klint’s mother, she believes keeping them away from her was “a noble cause tantamount to stepping between two baby seals and a club-wielding Canadian.”
O’Dell has once again delivered a marvelous cast of characters and a riveting plot that sweeps the reader along as secrets are revealed, and old wrongs set right.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.