When We Get There

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Miriam Wolf reviews Shauna Seliy’s new novel When We Get There.

It’s 1974, and the coal mining town of Banning, Pa., is struggling. The mines are closing one by one, and the close-knit population of Croat, Hungarian, Russian and other Eastern European immigrants is feeling the stresses and uncertainty of change in the winds.

Lucas Lessar is feeling more stressed than most. When the novel opens, it’s Christmas Eve, and 13-year-old Lucas is in the bosom of his extended family — his great-grandfather, the patriarch of the family; Slats, his grandmother, who works at “the Plate Glass”; and his gaggle of rowdy great-uncles and great-aunts. (They drink shots of whiskey and “feed each other moonshine cherries.”) It’s a poignant evening for Lucas. His father was killed in a mine explosion several years ago, and his mother mysteriously disappeared only a couple of months ago…

“When We Get There” is a novel all about mood. There is a sadness running through the book, uniting all the characters, even when they are having an evening out at the Croatian Club. Seliy is wonderful at creating lingering images, such as her description of Great-Grandfather’s pear tree, its fruit growing inside bottles fitted to the blossoms, the otherworldly quality of the pear brandy that fills the bottles. Or her meditation on Slats’ post-work ablutions, a metaphor for the woman’s strength and the toll her life takes on her body:

“Slats came home from the Plate Glass, stopped up the sink in the bathroom, and soaked her hands. She cursed the whole time. She cleaned her cuts every day so they wouldn’t get infected. Most of them were small, invisible from a few feet away, and she painted them over with iodine. The white basin had a pink glow from all the years of her rinsing her hands and spilling the iodine.”