by Ann Pancake
Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Cottrell
Strange as This Weather Has Been: A Novel packs a wallop on several levels, and I commend it highly to any serious reader interested in a unique, powerful, and fresh voice in contemporary literature. Amazingly, it is Ann Pancake's first novel, though she has won several literary accolades, including the Bakeless Fiction Prize for her story collection called Given Ground. The author is a native West Virginian and apparently did a great deal of research and interviews with mountain people whose homes and mountains have been threatened by mountaintop removal mining. But make no mistake —this is not just a diatribe against the horrors of an environmental catastrophe disgused as a novel. It is a story that accurately depicts the lives of West Virginia families who have lived in the mountains for generations and are now facing the utter destruction of their homes and ways of life. The plot twists and turns with drama, lust, love, and violence, punctuated by the fear of imminent black floods from impoundments of toxic blast and slurry.
In this story of Lace and Jimmy Make and their four children, Bant, Dane, Corey, and Tommy, we find a microcosm of what is actually a very real and present situation, told in a way that represents all sides, yet clearly convicts the practice of mountaintop removal mining for the irreparable damage it inflicts on both flora and fauna, and the imminent threat to the health and safety of any humans living in its path. The voice slips back and forth between the family members, so the slices of their differing perspectives add up to a rich and satisfying whole.
Let me first try to share the haunting beauty and utter power of the author's voice and the conversations of the characters. At first, the mountain language sounds uneducated and crude, but soon I realized their way of talking—about the mountain, their surroundings, and their feelings—conveyed a depth of intelligence and spirituality that too many might dismiss as “redneck” or “hillbilly.” I kept highlighting phrases and sentences that took my breath away in their ability to evoke a sight, smell, feeling, or emotion in a way I would never have thought of, yet was spot on.
In describing how desperately she wanted to get away from home yet how homesick she was, the protagonist, Lace, lay in bed one night unable to sleep “…and at first I thought it was because my mind was confused. Then I realized it was the tangles of my heart. Sweet and hurt…when I left, I lost part of myself, but when I stayed, I couldn't stretch myself full.” Anyone who has left a rural home will recognize that conflict instantly.
I loved Lace's memories of her Grandma, who took her into the woods and taught her to feel and absorb the wisdom of the mountain and learn every flower, tree, root, berry, and animal. She learned the hills, the hollows, the creeks, the springs. She spoke of her places, “those places where if you sat quiet, the space dropped away between you and the land…she taught me to let into my insides the real of this place.”
Other lovely sections I highlighted:
“It's funny, how I remember that time and I don't. A forgetting with vivid holes.”
“To walk in woods was a prayer.”
“The thing I learned through that loss is that anger is easier than grief.”
The following passage is an example of the totally unorthodox use of words and punctuation that drags the reader into the scene's experience as forcefully as a 3-D movie. One of Lace's son's, Corey, couldn't get enough of anything mechanical or moving, including the train lumbering up the mountain:
“Corey couldn't help but draw up closer CHOCK CHOCK CHOCK CHOCK heatful they feel, and the odors of metal and oil and creosote the train weight pumps from the ties CHOCK CHOCK CHOCK CHOCK… Corey washed in the breath of the just-made train, him gut-feeling the train breath in a place in his body he didn't know he had, a place deeper than he knew his body got, the train force humming the teeth in his head, and how the air break between cars staggered him back, the sudden miss of metal making more there the smash of force of the gon following CHOCK CHOCK CHOCK CHOCK a no time dangle time train wash wafting up and over them time and then. Finished.
“Corey, tottery, gutted Dane behind him yelping does he wnt to get killed, and Corey grappling after it, the last coal car, no caboose, vanishing around a curve. The train in its beautiful passing, past, leaving.”
The “honest complexity” of the characters was noted by Rick Bass on the back cover of the book, and it is another reason this book deserves recognition. The depth of each of the characters is plumbed in a way that suggests the author has a remarkably mature and wide-ranging understanding of human nature and the gamut of human emotion. Through them, the reader is reminded of the sometimes thin line between love and hate, the wounds of childhood cruelties, the heartbreak of a child with mental or physical disabilities, the ugliness of greed, the sweetness of simple things, and the heart-wrenching choices life sometimes forces us to make.
The beautiful and hopeful way the story ends was both satisfying and unexpected. If you decide to read it, I'd love to know what you think. It haunted me for days as I pondered the intertwining of love and hate, physical world and spiritual world, nature and man, and the juxtaposition of futility and hope.
Click either of the book covers below to go to its listing at Amazon.com.