I seem to have an affinity for Appalachian writers, particularly writers from
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann during the spring of 2008 when she was visiting her family in Romney, WV. We sat on the wide front porch of the farmhouse that has been in Ann’s family for several generations, discussing literature and language and land. Strange As This Weather Has Been is a novel about the effect of mountaintop removal coal mining on families in southern Appalachia as well as the impact on the environment. Pancake has a strong writing voice, telling the story through multiple points of view with language distinctive in syntax and regional phrasing. She began writing the book after helping her sister, filmmaker Catherine Pancake, interview families whose land and drinking water were being destroyed by mountaintop removal mining methods.
Despite reading about and seeing photographs of mountaintop removal mining, I was still not quite prepared for witnessing it firsthand as I did last October on Kayford Mountain just south of Charleston, WV. Instead of tunneling underground and hauling out the coal, mountaintop removal mining is an extreme form of strip mining which blasts the entire top off the mountain. The coal is then extracted and the rest of the dirt, rocks, and trees that had been the mountaintop are dumped over the side into the valley below. The coal is processed at the mining site where huge slurry impoundments are contained behind earthen dams. These are essentially toxic lakes of sludge and chemicals which leach into the ground water. The families in the shadow of these mountaintop mines suffer by having their land destroyed, their drinking water contaminated, and their health compromised. There are dozens of such mines operating in West Virginia and Kentucky, which can readily be seen by using Google Earth maps and zooming in with the satellite view.
Perhaps I am so moved by the West Virginia writers because I come from a similar place in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. My grandfathers and uncles were coal miners at one time, before the mines there were exhausted. I try to imagine how enraged I would feel if this type of destruction were to occur on my own beloved Jacks Mountain. The coal in the region where I grew up has been mined out, but the mountains still stand. Now when I drive east from Pittsburgh to visit my family back home, I see wind turbines on the crests of those mountain ridges, just as I saw wind turbines in southwestern PA that day last spring when I drove south to West Virginia to interview Ann.
Our regional identities are shaped by the land around us, and so are our stories. Ann Pancake is one of the writers telling the stories of Appalachia and making an effort to protect her home state from the corporate and political interests that would destroy that heritage by hauling the mountains out of West Virginia, coal car by coal car, one train after another.
Shop Indie Bookstores
Top Photo of Ann Pancake, copyright © 2008 Dory Adams
Photo of Kayford Mountain, copyright © 2008 Dory Adams