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Isabel Reddy
Isabel Reddy, author
In 2019, Aleena Rowan, adrift in the wake of a failed marriage, receives a box of her father's desk diaries from the years he worked as a coal executive. She expects to find nothing more than the cost of business lunches and meeting notes. Instead, she finds a mysterious name, Sara, scrawled on a slip of paper in her father's handwriting. Frank Rowan meets Sara Stone while fishing on a frigid January day, and sees her again waiting tables at Otter Creek’s only restaurant. It is 1970, and Frank and Sara’s relationship grows despite the impossible distance between a New York corner office and a Kentucky coal hollow. Initially, Sara sees Frank as her ticket to a better life, but other forces compete with her dreams – like protecting her town from the increasingly perilous coal slurry dam. In her debut novel, told from both sides of the coal industry, Isabel Reddy brings to life the conflicts and undercurrents of an Appalachian mining town on the eve of disaster.
Centered on the vividly evoked hollows and pitmouths of Appalachian mining country in 1970, Reddy’s accomplished debut deftly blends past and present, romance and tragedy, social realism and self exploration, along with a present-day woman’s search to better understand her coal executive father—and the workings of her own heart. Aleena Rowan in 2019 discovers a surprising name—“Sara”—written three times in a row in a 1970 desk diary of her late father, Frank Rowan, once the president of Rowan Coal. Facing the end of her own marriage, Aleena becomes fascinated by her father’s relationship with then Sara, and Reddy quickly spirits readers to Otter Creek Holler and the life of Sara Stone and her miner family. Sara encounters young Frank, whose company recently purchased the local mine, and despite the spark between them, she warns him to pretend not to know her—her brothers would object to an “operator” romancing her.

Looming over this all is a sort of dam of Damocles. The local dam is fractured, and plans to strip mine the area could flood local homes, a horrific eventuality that, in the novel’s present, Aleena discovers soon came to pass. The outline of Reddy’s story is simple, but its scenes are alive with telling detail—Kettlebottom, bug dust, and tipples—and engaging everyday conversation that brings to life a place, a time, and its people without sacrificing narrative momentum. The romance is subdued but finds Sara drawing fascinating contrasts between Frank, a New Yorker, and the men from her world, whom Reddy develops with verve and sensitivity.

Scenes set in the present move swiftly, and Reddy deftly builds suspense from what Aleena discovers about the flood, but readers likely will find themselves racing through Aleena’s chapters to get back to Frank, Sara, and the urgent feeling of living with the possibility of disaster. “Always kiss a miner goodbye,” several characters say, a burst of heartbreaking, hard-won wisdom that exemplifies this story of love and loss.

Takeaway: Powerful novel of love, loss, and legacy in Appalachian coal country.

Comparable Titles: Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been, Silas House.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A