Psychologist Danny Doyle returns home to his coal-mining roots in Pennsylvania to check on his ailing grandfather, and finds himself embroiled in a serial killer’s machinations to avenge old wrongs in Tawni O’Dell’s fifth novel, One of Us. Eerily similar in tone to the recent Christian Bale/Woody Harrelson flick Out of the Furnace (or the older Winter’s Bone), we see the internal power struggle that occurs for those who leave their backwoods beginnings seeking something better but are forced to return.
Doyle tells much of the story in the first person, and we feel his internal reflection (and shudders) as he thinks back to a broken childhood, bullied at home and at school. Bullying could easily be one of the main targets here for O’Dell, as she takes aim at a society divided between those who own the mines and those who slave away in the dark below. But there’s a sense of history here that shows that the dynamics aren’t immediate or cyclic, but as ingrained in the community as the dirt in their lungs or the alcohol they drink to numb their pain. All of this makes it even more painful for the intellectually-liberated, world-traveled expert in how the mind works, who realizes that he’s still stuck in his own painful childhood even as he works to help others work through their own.
O’Dell has fashioned a murder mystery, the motivations of which you may guess at by halfway through the book. But you can’t guess exactly how this will work out, or how the community will find healing for a century’s old pain. In the end of the narrative, it’s almost as if a prophecy has come true, but along the way, we’ve seen nuances in how family, community, and growth work, like taking a Harlan Coben/John Connolly narrative and injecting it with the sort of personal feeling that we’d expect from a homecoming like… Hope Floats.
All of this leaves me asking questions like: which is more important, nature or nurture? Can you go home again? Do people change? Are family structures irrevocably broken? O’Dell asks those questions but she does it through the narrative, sneakily forcing us to consider the interpersonal dynamics while keeping us hooked by the desire to know more about Doyle and his family, and the resolution of the murders. This is a thriller, but it’s one intent on gripping your heart as well as your head.