Back Roads took me home to Pennsylvania

For the past two weeks I’ve gone to Western Pennsylvania during stolen hours, transported there by prose so precise and memories so powerful that I can smell the sulfur air that envelops coal mining towns, hear Pap’s dusty spit hit the snuff can, taste the cabbage in my grandmother’s halupki.

I never lived in Colver, Pennsylvania but my dad grew up there and we visited often. We drove through the night, leaving Wisconsin in the light of day and arriving in Colver at ungodly hours, welcomed, always, with a giant dinner.

Later, my husband and I repeated the exact same process with our four children — same all-night drive, same pre-dawn meal, same two stoic people eager to see us.

Author Tawni O’Dell describes the mining town I remember so well in her novels because she also grew up in Western Pennsylvania, just a few miles from my dad’s hometown. My mom, a Cincinnati city girl, once spent a whole summer in Colver and recommended this series of books to us.

Her first novel, Back Roads, was an Oprah Book Club selection and tells a dark story of a 19-year old man raising his three younger sisters. A feature film based on the novel will be released next year, starring Jennifer Garner.

Coal Run traces the aftermath of a tragic mine explosion, and Fragile Beasts tells the poignant story of two brothers who lose their father in a violent car accident and fight to define themselves and their new, unorthodox family.

All three books take an honest look into a world few people understand, mining communities that once thrived even while their residents worked under constant threat of disaster, but struggle mightily now to heal scars ripped into their landscape by strip mining and into their souls by unemployment because most of the mines are closed.

I read them all in a very busy two weeks. (Full disclosure, a sprained ankle relegated me to a boring elliptical machine and I passed my time pleasantly distracted by Ms. O’Dell’s books).

I’m looking forward to reading Sister Mine next and, when it comes out this summer, One of Us.

Treat yourself to a Tawni O’Dell book and immerse yourself in a world of hard living, raw struggles and unlikely heroes.

This kitchen never changed, and the woman who reigned over it didn't either. This is Baba and me in her Colver PA kitchen, circa 1967.
This kitchen never changed, and the woman who reigned over it didn’t either. This is Baba and me in her Colver PA kitchen, circa 1967.
Grandma's couch in Colver
This is my dad, Ron Kostelnik, on the couch in his mother’s living room. As a former newspaper writer, I appreciate the crop marks on this picture, which was taken for the Ebensburg newspaper, in 1962. Here is the story of how Phil Bengston had to talk my grandma into letting my dad play for the Green Bay Packers in 1961. It was not unusual for Western Pennsylvania sons of coal miners to make it to the NFL.
Tawni O’Dell’s books, including her first one called “Back Roads” remind me of Colver, Pennsylvania.
Pap and Baba on their front porch in Colver
My grandma and grandpa spent plenty of time on the front porch of their company house, gossiping with neighbors and watching the road for visiting family members.
With Tracy and the cousins in Colver
This is my cousin Tracy and me with my son Vinnie, her son Brandon and my daughter Katherine on our grandma’s couch in Colver. Grandma’s no longer with us, but Tracy and I keep in touch over tea and texts.
Laura in Colver 1981
I brought my then boyfriend Vince to see Colver and meet my grandparents in 1986. In this picture, I am overlooking 20 Row from a strip mine above. Western Pennsylvania is really beautiful and my dad said he missed the mountains when he moved to Wisconsin.
I'm thrilled to have unearthed this picture of Charlie and his great gandpa Micky. Pap was a coal miner and here he and Charlie are sporting company hats.
I’m thrilled to have unearthed this picture of my son Charlie and his great grandpa Micky. Pap was a coal miner and here he and Charlie are sporting company hats.

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