Tawni O’Dell’s newest novel, ‘Angels Burning’

Mine fires of the mind

When most Pennsylvanians hear the phrase “mine fire,” the image that immediately springs to mind is Centralia, home of one of the world’s longest burning mine fires. However, there are probably still at least 30 other active mine fires all over our state, so it’s not so odd to discover that western Pennsylvania native Tawni O’Dell has placed her new novel, Angels Burning, in a town near a mine fire at the other end of the state. What is odd is that she seems to have stolen Centralia’s fire and moved it 100 miles west.

In 'Angels Burning,' secrets rise like Centralia's smoke. (Photo by Cole Young via Creative Commons/Flickr)

The Centralia experience

O’Dell’s fire in the fictional Campbell’s Run is clearly based on Centralia’s — it’s 50 years old, and the townspeople have been removed by the government. Centralia’s fire started in 1962, and the town’s population, once 1,000, is now counted in single or low double digits. More important, O’Dell recreates the eerie environment anyone who’s been through Centralia can appreciate.

In fact, O’Dell describes what my wife and I once saw cruising into that disappeared town on Route 61. Dove Carnahan, the novel’s narrator and police chief, says, “Dead trees have broken loose from the weakened soil and fallen over. Their exposed roots remind me of the tangled legs of dried-out spiders that Neely and I used to find in our attic.” This is what we saw, except our pile of uprooted trees held enough wood to build two or three houses, and it was on fire.

A frisson and finely made observations

So, why move the fire? The earliest clue, in chapter two, follows the introduction of the book’s principal crime (a teenage girl’s partly burned body planted in a fiery gash in the earth). Meanwhile, a convict who says he murdered Carnahan’s mother 35 years earlier shows up at her office. Thus, a memory of one of my undergraduate professors gives the answer: “There is the frisson of a symbol,” he used to say.

In other words, O’Dell, who is most at home writing about upstate, downscale western Pennsylvania, needed a hidden fire of significance to match a cop’s 35-year secret — or more accurately, several secrets — so she just borrowed the big fire from the eastern half of the state. The change works since there are plenty of places and folks in Pennsylvania’s hilly western half that match Centralia’s creepshow, but in a different way. This Appalachian feeling is captured nicely by O’Dell, whether she’s focusing on her narrator’s former lover or the family of the young murder victim.

A woman in charge

O’Dell’s Carnahan, albeit a confessed liar, is the sharp-eyed woman in charge of a small town that comprises a mix of hillbillies and suburbanites. Her very unpleasant murder tale falls into a masculine crime story tradition in that she has a haunted past, but also includes quite a few irrelevant details (e.g., all the room colors in her own home, including “Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet”) that some would call feminine. Could that focus on detail serve her investigation?

Overall, the novel is a well-written exploration of both the nature of guilt over time and the poverty of the rural United States that James Carville referred to many years ago when he suggested that all of Pennsylvania between Paoli and Penn Hills is Alabama. The politico later said he was referring to conservatives and churchgoers, but people didn’t and still don’t take the remark that way. O’Dell shows why that is.

More important, however, are the tough questions raised: does plot sequence turn guilt into something like innocence when it isn’t exactly that, and is civilization actually tied to the law?

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