- Lost identity is a recurring theme in this book, both locally, in the Pennsylvania boys’ forgetting their hometowns, and in a larger sense, in Americans’ forgetting their ethnic identities. From tales of Magadan to the portrait of Volodymyr that sits above the Zoschenko dinner table, allusions to Ivan’s father’s former life in Ukraine and Russia are made throughout the novel. Discuss what Ivan’s heritage means to him.
- The land of Coal Run is inexplicably, irrevocably part of each character, drawing back those who leave it. Discuss each of the very different homecomings of the book—those of Val, Reese Raynor, Ivan, and John Harris. What is it that ties each character to the town?
- Compare Ivan as a little boy to Ivan as the narrator of the novel. How does his voice change? How are his relationships to Val and Eb similar?
- Ivan loses his father, uncle, and grandfather in the Gertie mine explosion and Val to the Vietnam War, then denies the existence of his own son. None of Jolene’s three sons have any kind of relationship with their fathers. Discuss the lack of male role models and father figures throughout the book. How does this affect the men of each generation?
- The loss of Ivan’s knee, his heroic self, and his chance to forever leave Coal Run all occur at Gertie. Discuss the significance of his choice to self-destruct at that location.
- The burning land of Coal Run, with its simmering unstoppable fires beneath the surface, literally sucks down people, homes, and objects to its fiery depths. The festering rage of each character similarly manifests itself with violence. Discuss how the violence and anger of Bobbie, Reese, and Ivan differ.
- Discuss the role of women in this town that is defined by mining, a very male profession. Ivan’s mother, his sister Jolene, Zo—are they better at coping with tragedy? Are they stronger?
- In many ways Zo and Dr. Ed mastermind the fates of several of the characters, guiding their fates, yet without reprimand or condemnation. Dr. Ed anonymously sends the clipping to Ivan. Zo leaves her home to Jolene and her grandson, forever tying Randy to Coal Run. Discuss the silent but strong (and effective) techniques of this generation.
- Ivan’s father is able to separate the profession of coal mining from the fact that he learned it while in Siberia at a work camp. Reese, though an abusive husband and a murderer, at one time behaved honorably by marrying Crystal when Ivan would not. But Ivan cannot separate his identity as a football hero and town figure from who he is inside as a person. Discuss how profession and the ability to provide shape male identity. How is male identity tied to duty?
- The demons of the past haunt several characters, most notably Ivan. How does the past literally and figuratively cripple him and prevent him from embarking on a future of any kind?