Wednesday, July 2, 2014

ONE OF US by Tawni O'Dell

Tawni O’Dell

            Tawni O’Dell’s novel, One Of Us, is a literary mystery. Those who work in each genre may be horrified by my classification and eschew such a combining of their genres – but, that is, in fact, what it is. It is primarily a character study, with a touch of a mystery running through it.

            Some of the characters who are portrayed include poor Irish immigrant coal miners, the wealthy mine owner, and the boy who “made good” – that is, the boy who was born and raised amidst the poor coal miners and who made himself an equal of sorts to the mine owner and his ilk.

            Dr. Sheridan (Danny) Doyle is a famous forensic psychologist. He was the boy who grew up in the little mining town – with an abusive father, a mentally ill mother, and his maternal grandfather, who was largely responsible for helping him escape a future in the mines.

            When Danny returns home to care for his elderly, ill grandfather, the mystery begins. He returns to his poor, dysfunctional roots in designer attire. He represents a sort of bridge between the poor miners and the wealthy mine owner and his haughty, wealthy daughter, Scarlet. Danny fits in everywhere, he fits in nowhere, and he is embroiled in the mystery. There are even ghosts involved in the mystery.

            The mystery, of course, is solved. Along the way, however, we learn a great deal about forensic psychology, coal mining, and the “Nellies”, who appear to be O’Dell’s fictional version of the Molly Maguires. I found these portions of the book to be fascinating.

            Perhaps O’Dell intends her book to be an exploration of who constitutes “us”. Perhaps O’Dell’s characters are metaphors – overdrawn and stereotypical representations (for example, suggesting that the wealthy can get away with murder). If so, she is not particularly subtle with her use of these representations. Perhaps this is intentional. She even includes a tongue-in-cheek television combination of Scooby Doo and Ghost Busters that comes to the poor, little town.

            One Of Us is well written, and the characters feel real – with one exception: I was never able to envision a physical face for Danny. Perhaps this, too, was intentional on O’Dell’s part. I certainly was able to picture his psyche from the text.

            O’Dell’s literary study of what it means to be one of us goes beyond the simple rich versus poor, owner versus miner. Danny’s secretary, for example, is a minor character who demonstrates that whether or not we are considered to be one of “us” depends on how we are clothed. In other words, how we cloak and present ourselves greatly influences whether we are “one of us”.

            One Of Us is neither a true literary character analysis nor a true mystery. It does not fit well within either genre. But, it doesn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.


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