In college—my first extended time away from home—I found myself suddenly caught up in the phrase, “in the mountains.” When I’d try to tell people where I was from, I’d finally offer an explanation: back in the mountains. It was the preposition that struck me. I wasn’t from on a mountain. I didn’t exist upon them or around them, behind or in front. I lived in—inside—those mountains.
This preposition drives Ann Pancake’s debut novel, Strange as this Weather Has Been. Immediately a reader is aware of the blurring line between place and identity, as the book opens with a young girl, Lace, simultaneously stricken with guilt and freedom as she runs down the road away from her house. She wants to stay and go all at once, and this tension between loyalty and escape continually tears at Lace. When she eventually leaves her native mountains on a scholarship to West Virginia University, she is quickly pulled back home by an unexpected pregnancy with a fifteen-year-old local boy, Jimmy Make.
“What is it about this place?” she asks. “I learned the smallness of me in the away. I understood how when I left, I lost part of myself.”
The book then flings a reader into the present moment, two decades later, where Lace lives turbulently in a trailer back in a hollow with Jimmy Make and their four children: the sturdy daughter, Bant; the inward effeminate Dane; the recklessly fearless Corey; and the young, tenacious Tommy. The family’s life at the foot of impending mountaintop-removal mining creates what Wendell Berry calls “one of the bravest novels I have ever read.”
Jimmy Make and Lace age quickly and separately in their life together; their relationship crumbles while bulldozers and trucks unearth and displace the tops of surrounding mountains. Forests are cleared, streams are dammed, humps of mountain are heaped into valleys. The mining operations are drenched in secrecy, and the families living in the hollows know little of the activity above their homes—they only hear the explosions, see the effects.
Lace and Jimmy argue over these effects. Lace holds covert meetings at her job at the Dairy Queen to learn about and fight the operation—the slurry ponds and impoundments—while Jimmy Make, an unemployed strip miner, presses to keep his family quiet and out of the way. Lace finds herself as the local voice, Jimmy the silent status quo, and their children grow up within these extremes.
Bant, Dane, Corey, and Tommy come of age in a world ever in fear of an apocalyptic flood rushing from the rumbling of the mountain. A world on edge. The children collect machinery, appliances, and other manmade bits littered through the land by floods. A generation before, Lace grew up learning from her grandmother where to find edible roots and plants in the woods. The novel traces these ambivalent connections to the land across generations, making no overt statements about mountaintop-removal mining, only showing the wear on a living, breathing family connected to the land. Pancake’s characters summon grief and outrage without yelling.
Prepositions aren’t the only exciting bits of language in the novel. The rippling syntax spilling from the heads of the characters—most chapters are narrated by family members—would make grammarians convulse. Sentences roll along like lists, with commas spliced in for brief breaths. Adjectives become nouns. Nouns verbs. At times the language becomes so personal, poetic, and outright strange that a reader is torn between charging forward after the plot and sitting for a spell to explore the lyricism of the mountaineer voices.
“What did Jimmy Make understand?” Bant asks herself about her father and his silence. She answers her own question: “Understood that move-the-mountain draw, the power, the suck, the tempt.”
Within these many voices and lives, Pancake meshes intriguing plot lines. Lace’s search for clues moves like a detective novel; Dane’s chapters work philosophically through themes of sexuality, identity, and religion, all the while prophesying Armageddon. Bant chases gritty young romance with a miner; Corey fantasizes about manly adventure atop four-wheelers and bulldozers. The character’s stories would entice most readers without the central thread of mountaintop-removal mining, but it is the shifting world that drives these disparate plots. At any moment, all of the characters’ lives could upend.
Published in 2007, Strange as this Weather Has Been has landed in an oddly quiet climate. Mountaintop-removal mining made soft noise during the 2008 presidential election, but the issue doesn’t garner headlines or mainstream debate. The Appalachian Mountains are older than the Himalayas, and they hold ecosystems ranging from temperate to arctic. Yet, daily they are cleared of forests, and layer after layer of mountains is exploded and removed to find coal seams. The displaced soil—the “overburden”—is dumped into the valleys, causing pollution, floods, and sterile land.
But despite these environmental concerns, mountaintop-removal mining easily endangers the people living in its midst. The problems are tightly tied to the lives of the mountaineers, and it’s here that Pancake situates her novel. One sees the damage to the land—the flattened skylines and strangled ecosystems—but this book brings the people to the messy forefront.
Appalachians are often stifled and stigmatized by the outside. They’re hillbillies, slow and backward, illiterate and violent. But Ann Pancake, a native West Virginian, interviewed and recorded families living in the sludgy wake of mountaintop-removal mining in writing this novel. The voices and grammatical tics are, in many ways, theirs. Their stories, too, sustain and piece together Lace and Jimmy’s fictional family. Standing on shoulders of actual stories and lives, Strange as this Weather Has Been is a true novel. It is a novel brimmed with beauty and poetics but aimed at change and justice. A novel that voices the silence.
Jeremy B. Jones received an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and now teaches writing at Charleston Southern University. His essays have appeared in Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, and Relief, among others, and he’s currently at work on a nonfiction book about the “confused” identity of his native Blue Ridge Mountain.
Strange as this Weather Has Been
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 159376166X