Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ann Pancake: Strange As This Weather Has Been

I seem to have an affinity for Appalachian writers, particularly writers from West Virginia. No doubt one of my earliest and best writing teachers, Chuck Kinder, had an influence. The Mountain State has produced a literary legacy of fine writers, and many of them are involved in an anthology project I’ve put together of stories and photographs linked by a railroad motif. Ann Pancake's Pushcart Prize winning story, Dog Song, is part of that project. Her short story collection, Given Ground, won the 2000 Katharine Bakeless Nason Fiction Prize, and her 2007 novel Strange As This Weather Has Been won the Weatherford Award and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

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

Photo credits:

Top Photo of Ann Pancake, copyright © 2008 Dory Adams

Photo of Kayford Mountain, copyright © 2008 Dory Adams


2KoP said...

Have you ever read Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies? It's set in Virginia, not West Virginia, but it has that same sense of Appalachia. Published in 1988.

Dory Adams said...

2KoP, I haven't read that one yet, but I love Lee Smith's work. I'll check it out. Thanks!

MikeE said...

Hi Dory --

I just followed your astute posting on the NYTimes photo-essay about the veracity of images to your wonderful blog. And here's my beloved Ann Pancake! As a WV writer she has inspired me for some time, since I first picked up Given Ground at my college library, and found my home reflected in its pages. GREAT photo of her, one of the best I've seen.

I love the insights your blog provides into places and people in Appalachia -- definitely food for thought.

I look forward to your novel, too -- reading on another posting that you have been writing one.


Dory Adams said...

Mike, glad you found my blog! That NYT essay was great, and exactly fit with what I'm going to explore in a few upcoming posts with guest photographers, starting with North Carolina photographer Tim Barnwell for the next two posts. His work is gorgeous, and in fact I showed his book to Ann Pancake on the day I interviewed her.

Anonymous said...

this is such a good blog that I can hardly stand it. I am in Richmond, Virginia. Of course, back in the day, Richmond was the capital of West Virginia, and they were trying to build a canal that would have connected the James to the Ohio. By now, it would likely have been full of destitute barges like those in the pictures on this blog. Damned if the two Virginias have not seen better days. We are two inextricably linked states who, apart, will never see the greatness which we should rightly attain.

Dory Adams said...

Anonymous in Richmond, I'm glad you found your way to my blog and that you like what you see here. It's wonderful to continue getting comments even months later after a post goes up!

Newsworthy Novels said...

I recently posted about this book (in relation to recent news about mountain-top removal) and referenced your review: