When We Get There (Bloomsbury) is set in Southwestern Pennsylvania coal country, in 1974. But area native Shauna Seliy's agreeable debut novel suggests that in an isolated, clannish place like her fictional town of Banning, automobiles and factories and hospitals and telephones are just a skin of modernity streched across the bones of a richer past.
Seliy's narrator is Lucas Lessar, the adolescent third-generation descendant of Russian and Croatian immigrants who came to work the mines. His young mother, Mirjana -- widowed when his gentle father died in a mine explosion -- has recently disappeared, leaving him at once bewildered and menaced by her violently unstable suitor, a glass-plant worker named Zoli. Even the warm and powerful embrace of Lucas' grandmother Slats and the rest of his large extended family is compromised by the apparently terminal illness of their patriarch, his wise and big-hearted great-grandfather.
In the wonderful opening chapter, Lucas introduces a world where, though men have been to the moon, the woods around Great-grandfather's small farm might be populated by spirits, and folk medicine and family secrets rule:
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Great-grandfather made the pear brandy himself, using fruit from his own tree. In the spring, when the buds came out, he would put bottles on them so that the pears would grow inside the bottles. People in the family thought the pear brandy could heal you. When the animals were hurt, Great-grandfather poured it on their wounds.
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Seliy graduated from McKeesport's Serra Catholic High School, and formerly lived in Monroeville; she now lives in Washington, D.C. Her novel smartly evokes the isolation of a place like Banning, where even Pittsburgh seems mythically remote, and the people most likely to harm you brush shoulders daily with your protectors. Lucas' search for his mother becomes a coming-of-age quest that climaxes when he takes responsibility for a rash act against an antagonist.
A missing mother, a fading coal industry, a dying farm, a sick old man, a dreamed-of refuge in some far-off bower -- despite Seliy's elegant prose, and pitch-perfect dialogue conveying such pleasures as Slats' earthy humor, When We Get There bears hallmarks of melodrama. The feeling becomes especially strong when the mystery of Mirjana's whereabouts are revealed, an answer disappointingly familiar.
But many of Seliy's images and symbols are simply and powerfully enough rendered to be indelible, especially that of Great-grandfather's pear tree, which a vengeful Zoli burns in Chapter 1. Like the songs sung in Old World languages by local combos -- songs Lucas loves but only partly understands -- Seliy might sound familiar themes, but she imbues them with considerable lyricism.
Shauna Seliy reads from When We Get There 7 p.m. Thu., May 17 (Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side, 412-381-3600); 7 p.m. Fri., May 18 (Borders-Eastside, 5986 Penn Circle South, East Liberty, 412-441-1080); and 7 p.m. Sat., May 19 (Borders-Monroeville, Monroeville Mall, 412-375-9772). All events are free.