Tawni O'Dell made a dramatic entrance onto the literary scene with her first novel, Back Roads (1999), an Oprah's Book Club selection which garnered rave reviews. Both that debut and her second novel, Coal Run, were set in the hardscrabble world of Pennsylvania's mine country and showcased O'Dell's deft characterizations and evocative descriptions of that left-behind niche of the world.
Sister Mine also takes place in a small coal-mining town: Jolly Mount, home of the mine where, two years earlier, five local men were trapped for four days before their harrowing rescue. It's also home to Shae-Lynn Penrose, O'Dell's gutsy and marvelously engaging 40-year-old heroine, who has recently returned after a long absence. Shae-Lynn was six when her mother died shortly after giving birth to her sister Shannon; they were left with their bitter and abusive father. Shae-Lynn becomes a single teenage mother and spends her college years filling three roles: mother to an infant son, sister to a difficult teen, and daughter to a bully. After graduation she reluctantly leaves Shannon with their father and moves with her son to Washington, D.C., where she works for the Capitol Police. Two years after Shae-Lynn's move, Shannon disappears without a trace until the novel's opening scene, when she reappears after 18 years, pregnant and followed closely by a trio of characters more than casually interested in her baby.
Amid this ongoing family saga, O'Dell never drops the thread running in and out of all these familial details the story of the five trapped miners, and how that tragedy continues to ripple through their lives, like an earthquake's aftershocks. O'Dell's simultaneously sad and humorous chronicle of Shae-Lynn, her dysfunctional family and her newfound but tenuous love life keeps the reader rooting for her all the way to the last page . . . and beyond. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.