Stranger Than Information

There's information about the health effects and environmental destruction from mountaintop removal mining, but it takes a novel to show what destroying the land does to people.

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Strange as This Weather Has Been
By Ann Pancake
Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007
360 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Strange as This Weather Has Been, Appalachia-born Ann Pancake’s debut novel, could easily be about many East Coast towns in recent months. Published in 2007, though, this beautiful and chilling book tells the stories of members of a West Virginia community as mountaintop removal mining presses in on them from all sides.

Socially-conscious Internet users can learn fairly easily about the dangers of mountaintop removal (MTR)  mining. Yet well-intentioned as they may be, activist depictions of critical issues can often be one-dimensional. Knowing the facts about environmental and health impacts of MTR doesn’t answer the more essential local question;

How are people’s senses of place and rootedness affected as they witness the most solid landscape they know literally ripped apart?

Understanding such issues of the soul, as well as the ways corporate abuse changes relationships within a community, is crucial to building strong fights against any of the major environmental problems rural areas face, such as MTR and natural gas drilling.

Pancake’s brilliance thus lies in her ability to introduce the health, environmental and economic damages of MTR by writing rich accounts and clear portraits. Her story presents contrasting layers of how people in the hollow cope with, resign themselves to, or stand up against the destruction of the mountains around them.

The narrative of Lace See anchors the novel. Her story begins a teenager, seeing in herself a “sweet peach-pink,” thinking she’d do better than the “grubby, grim, gritty” place she grew up. In the first chapter, Lace says,

Nothing on TV, nothing in books, nothing in magazines looked much like our place or much like us, and it’s interesting, how you can believe what’s on TV is realer than what you feel under your feet. Growing up here, you get the message very early on that your place is more backwards than anywhere in America and anybody worth much will get out soon as they can, and that doesn’t come only from outside.

Feeling homesick after a few months at college, though, Lace returns to the hollow where a brief encounter with 16-year-old Jimmy Make leaves her pregnant; thus begins the erosion of the life she imagined beyond the base of Cherryboy and Yellowroot mountains.

Some of the most powerful passages are her ruminations on “leaving out” of the hollow and the internal knots she ties and unravels trying to understand “what is it about this place?” that binds her and others in the community to it so deeply. As an adult, Lace retains those those ties; they lead her to seek information about the impending danger of mountaintop removal mining, which intimidates or baffles many others.

Lace’s awareness and understanding intensify her clashes with Jimmy Make, who pushes her to move the family away; economic options had long been on the decline here, with the threat of MTR deepening the fated feel of the community. As she becomes more involved with efforts to stop mountaintop removal mining, Lace reaches the pinnacle of questioning, to consider her relationship to the hollow:

Ann Pancake

Most of the ones who had suffered enough to start fighting were already tired when they began and after a year or so, they’d get dragout beatdown exhausted, if they weren’t outright sick from the stress. And many people were sick from the stress, and not just the people fighting it, many people just living in it were sick from it. And what the hell? I’d ask myself again. What the hell is it? Because even if everybody had money to leave, I knew most of us would stay. And if those who’d left had any choice, most of them would run right back.

The story of Lace’s development is intercut with chapters narrated by or about her children. Bant, the oldest and only daughter, grew up on her grandmother’s wisdom about how to live off the land, and consequently she’s the character through which we see the most raw hurt about the mountains’ destruction. When she shows what’s happening to the mountains to her brother Corey—who spends most of the book fixated on a neighbor’s under-used dirt bike—his reaction is to be enamored with the raw power of machines that can explode and rip apart entire landscapes. The feelings of another brother, Dane, are less clear as he deals with differences between who he is and who his peers expect him to be.

Neither Jimmy Make nor the youngest child, Tommy, have whole chapters devoted to their experiences, which in the case of the former reinforces the distanced persona he projects to Lace.

Pancake drew insights and ideas from interviews and conversations with people in the southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky coalfields. Her novel presents mountaintop removal in ways that will resonate for readers familiar and unfamiliar with the topic. Beyond this, Strange as This Weather Has Been portrays Appalachian identity with a depth and complexity that’s difficult to find in mainstream U.S. culture.

Kara Newhouse edits the grassroots newspaper Pennsylvania from Below  and blogs about culture at Rogue Anthropologist.

 

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