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BookMark: 'One of Us' by Tawni O'Dell

One of Us book cover & reviewer

I just made an up close and personal visit to Pennsylvania’s coal country. I did it through reading Tawni O’Dell’s brand new novel, One of Us.

The book is set in Lost Creek, Pennsylvania, a coal mining company town. I assumed the town was fictional, so I was surprised to Google it and find it right there on a Pennsylvania map next to Frackville and Shenandoah and with it - you guessed it – Lost Creek running through the middle.

I don’t know how the real Lost Creek compares to the one in O’Dell’s novel. My guess is there’s probably not nearly as much intrigue going on in the real town.

In the novel, we start by meeting small-town-boy-turned-minor-celebrity Dr. Sheridan Doyle. Doyle now lives in Philadelphia and has made himself rich as a psychologist who studies serial killers and gives testimony on their mental state at trial. He’s also written several books and does guest appearances with Dr. Phil and Larry King.

It’s glamorous, but Doyle comes from tough roots: A father who beat him. A bipolar mother. When he finds out his beloved 96-year-old grandfather has been sick he decides it’s time for a visit to Lost Creek after more than a decade away.

It probably won’t surprise mystery readers that not long after Doyle returns home people begin to die and he gets wrapped up in the investigation. What might be a surprise is that we learn the identity of the killer pretty quickly. The real focus of the plot is figuring out the details of a long buried secret involving the Doyle family and the Dawes family that’s owned the coal mine for generations.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the disintegrating town and its coal mining past. I’m not from rural Pennsylvania, but the people remind me of the ones I knew growing up in rural north Florida. My town, White Springs, had two blinking lights and sat along the Suwannee River. It had been known for its curative springs a hundred years before. When they dried up, locals blamed the nearby phosphate mines. Lost Springs with its decay and mining roots felt believable to me even though I’ve never been there. Even the craziest of the antics of the town folk felt believable.

One character did feel forced: our protagonist, Doyle. Sure, he’s over-compensating for his blue-collar upbringing, but his pompousness and focus on designer clothes drove me crazy. The clothes may be a symbol of his newfound wealth and his insecurity, but all the talk of “Ferragamo this” and “Calvin Klein that” kept me from liking him quite as much as I wanted to.  

All-in-all, though, I enjoyed the novel, with its fast-moving plot and central Pennsylvania settings. Most of us have at least driven through towns like Lost Creek. Some of us are from towns like this one. Either way, reading One of Us is an interesting visit to Pennsylvania coal country. 

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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