Shae-Lynn Penrose drives a cab in a town where no one needs a cab—but plenty of people need rides. An ex-cop with a closet full of miniskirts, a recklessly sharp tongue, and a tendency to get into fistfights, she has spent years carving out a life for herself and her son in the tiny Pennsylvania coal-mining town where she grew up. But things haven’t been the same since two years ago, when five of Shae-Lynn’s miner friends were trapped in a cave-in. They were rescued alive but the subsequent fame and fallout have left them forever changed.
So Shae-Lynn has enough to deal with when the baby sister she thought was dead suddenly arrives on her doorstep—followed closely by a desperate Connecticut housewife, a shady New York lawyer, and a gun-wielding Russian gangster. Add to the mix her long-simmering passion for one of the miners and a whopper of a family secret, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a melt-down.
From the opening line, Tawni O’Dell’s sharp protagonist’s uncensored observations and dry wit draw us into this subtly plotted, brilliantly characterized novel. With a bracing humor, the author navigates some tough and controversial territory that will surely lead to lively debate. This guide is designed to help you direct your reading group’s discussion of Tawni O’Dell’s smart, absorbing novel Sister Mine.

  1. Tawni O’Dell has populated Jolly Mount with some wonderful, fully-fleshed characters: swearing, miniskirt-wearing Shae-Lynn; rugged and quiet E.J.; whisky-drinking, one-legged Jimmy; delightfully precocious Fanci and her little brother Kenny, just to name a few. Who was your favorite character, and why?
  2. What was your first impression of E.J.? Did your opinion of him change over the course of the book? If so, how and why?
  3. Shae-Lynn treasures a series of National Geographic books that were given to her by Jimmy and Isabel. There seem to be particular photographs that she revisits time and again. What is the books’ significance to her?
  4. The Penrose house was not a happy place in which to grow up. And while their neighbors were good to the girls, no one ever stepped in and confronted their father on their behalf. “Ostracism is the only way people around here deal with unsavory family situations, and if it doesn’t cause the families to change, everyone washes their hands of them.” (p. 174)  Does this seem to be an accurate portrayal of how things are handled in Jolly Mount?  Is Shae-Lynn’s involvement with Fanci and Kenny a conscious protest of the status quo, or simply the only thing Shae-Lynn knows to do?
  5. Shae-Lynn says “a mother’s love is not warm and cuddly like a soft blanket as it’s popularly portrayed. It’s a fierce, rabid love, like having a mad dog living inside you all the time.” (p.332) Do you agree with her assessment of motherly love?
  6. Shae-Lynn believes that “a man spends his whole life trying to prove his worth to others. A woman spends her life trying to prove her worth to herself.” (p. 220) Discuss the implications of this statement, especially as they apply to both Shae-Lynn and Shannon. Do you agree with Shae-Lynn?
  7. E.J. says that the only thing Shae-Lynn is good at is fighting. (p.92) Much of what we see her do seems to prove him right. So how did Shae-Lynn manage to raise such a level-headed, responsible son?
  8. Was Shae-Lynn right to keep Clay’s father’s identity a secret all those years?
  9. Did Shannon come back to Jolly Mount with the intention of leaving her baby with Shae-Lynn?
  10. Do you think Shannon would have been a different person had her mother been alive to raise her? Do you think all her problems stem from growing up without a mother? Why or why not?
  11. Through the course of the novel, Shae-Lynn begins to have trouble getting access to the safe room she imagines for herself. At one point, she becomes startled by the appearance of a face at the window of her safe room. After she surrenders to her physical desire for E.J., she says “for the first time I see what the purpose of my furnished soul has become, no longer to shelter me from monsters but to help me cope with the emptiness of a ransacked heart. . . . I know now it was [E.J.’s] face at my window, not trying to get in but telling me it’s time to come out.” (pp. 320-321) Discuss this revelation and its impact on Shae-Lynn and her relationship with E.J.
  12. After sleeping with E.J. for the first time, Shae-Lynn has a disturbing dream, described on page 327. What do you think it means?
  13. What do you think of the mining company’s tradition of giving the mines women’s names? How does it change your view of the mines themselves, and the men who work them?
  14. The Jolly Mount Five decide to drop their lawsuit against Cam Jack so that the mines will remain open and continue to provide employment for the men of their town. Do you agree with their decision? Do you think there might have been another option that could have saved the mines and also taken a stand against Cam Jack? Which do you believe was more important: keeping the mines open, or holding Cam Jack accountable for their poor maintenance?
  15. It’s six months after the novel ends….where do you see the characters? Are E.J. and Shae-Lynn together? Has Shannon been heard from again? Is Cam Jack alive? Is life the same in Jolly Mount?