Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Strange as this Weather Has Been

Every year the college I commute to has a "common book" provided free to all first-year students and discussed in the first-year writing class. This year it's Strange as this Weather Has Been, by Ann Pancake. Now, I love the idea of a common book. I always read it enthusiastically and enjoy using it to demonstrate the difference between leading a discussion on a novel I've read once and don't necessarily agree with or love, versus the more usual discussions on novels I've read twice or more and love enough to assign. This one was on a topic wholly unfamiliar to me, mountaintop removal mining for coal in West Virginia.

Ann Pancake is against mountaintop removal mining, and the purpose of her novel is to make you feel the pain of the people whose land is being destroyed by it. So it has a didactic tone from the start, plus recommendations for protest websites in the acknowledgments at the end. (Pancake's own website provides additional links.)

The story is told in alternating chapters by various characters, mostly Lace, a W.VA native who quit college after her first semester because she was homesick and got pregnant by a local boy on her first visit home ("don't try this, first-years"), and her children, Bant, Dane, and Corey. Lace and Bant spend most of their time coming to terms with the idea that mining has destroyed the environment of their home and trying to come up with a response. They educate themselves about the local mining operations, but they don't know enough about science to tell propaganda from truth. Their version of the truth is local; it doesn't go beyond identifying and using plants and animals native to the area. Bant utters the title phrase, trying to link global warming to the mining operations on nearby mountains:
"Anymore, seemed there was either too much water or too little, the temperature too high or too low. 'Strange as this weather has been,' people would say, or 'With this crazy weather we've been having.' And I knew Lace believed the weather was linked to the rest of this mess, but I wasn't sure how."

Corey, who has grown up with machinery rather than nature, is attracted to the mining machinery:
"finally he'd scale Big John. That vast mountain-handling piece of gorgeous machinery. And as Corey climbs it, the smell of its fluids the good grease he'd get on his clothes. And maybe he'd cut himself a little on something. Maybe he'd bleed a little there. He'd crawl in, settle in the seat, take a look at how it ran, push his legs to the pedals, grip sticks and handles. That giant, his body in that gigantic body, his body running that body, and the size, the power of that machine: inside Big John, Corey can change the shape of the world. Corey can."
But Corey's attraction to machinery eventually results in his doom, and even though I'm sympathetic to the environmental message of this novel, that irritates me. It seems heavy-handed, although perhaps it's a tribute to the power of Pancake's characterization that I care.

The character of Avery, a neighbor of Lace's who left W. Va. for college and a job in Cleveland, irritates me too, because he seems to be invented solely for the purpose of showing what is lost when someone learns to speak "standard" English and value anything outside his mountain home. (What an anti-education novel this is, to assign to college students who are just starting out!) Avery also serves as a mouthpiece for the author, as he studies and describes various mining disasters and tells his own personal (and horrifying) story of surviving one.

Despite the heavy-handed propagandizing and the occasional mouthpiece character, though, this novel succeeds in getting me interested in the characters and, through them, a subject I had no interest in before. As Lace says, late in the novel,
"It hurt to learn it, it did. It was easier to half-ignore it, pretend it wasn't that bad, anyway, or if it was, couldn't do nothing about it so why get worked up, that's how a lot of people lived. But I realized to at least know part of what was going on made you feel like you had a particle of control instead of none at all."

As an adult, I've always been a proponent of nuclear energy, but reading a novel like this one gives me new impetus to vote against the use of coal wherever I can. That's going to have to be enough, at least for now. Because I want to feel that particle of control, rather than ignore something once it's been brought to my attention. Have you ever heard of mountaintop removal mining before this? Does it give you that fatalistic feeling that it's yet another thing you should be doing something about but you're not ready to get worked up about it now when there are so many other things that seem more urgent?


Harriet said...

When my parents lived in Indy, we used to drive through the mountains of West Virginia to get to the place they're living now and we saw plenty of evidence of the mining, which looks weird and damaged. Our car would always come out of the area black with coal dust and you had to wonder how it affected the locals.

kittiesx3 said...

I love the notion of a common book but have never been fond of preachy books.

I also struggle with the overwhelming number of worthy causes. I'm not one who can focus on the myriad causes that beg for time, attention and money. I haven't finished Red Letter Christians yet even though it's quite short. That's because I know I can't work on every worthy cause the author lists. It's an exhaustive list and frankly it exhausts me to consider everything on it.

So to consider another cause like mountaintop removal mining (which I agree sounds heinous) isn't something I can do. Add in the preachy element and well that seals the deal for me.

That's not to say I don't have any interest in causes like this. It's just that for me, I have only so much energy available. Does that make sense?

SFP said...

Mountaintop removal is terrible and politicians don't seem to want to touch it. Gah, I'm so sick of hearing about "clean" coal.

I made an attempt to read this one a couple years back, but didn't get very far. I wanted to like it but just couldn't get into it at the time. Maybe I should pick it up again.

readersguide said...

Oh, I'm so glad you read this -- my book group read it a few months ago, but I'd never heard about it otherwise. I actually liked it a lot. It certainly is propagandistic, but the details all felt real, and it was a world I did not know much about before I read it. And I kind of liked the place-ness of it -- the way the characters had a sort of magical feeling about that place. It's a way of living so foreign to the way most people live these days. I love certain places, but I don't know them the way these characters love their specific mountains, although I can almost imagine it. I thought it was worth reading. (Though now that you mention it, it is kind of anti-education, huh.)

Anonymous said...

First learned about this kind of mining from, of all sources, "the Dukes of Hazzard." It's been vaguely on my mind ever since.

Sharyn McCrumb deals with the mountain culture issues a lot in her writing, and her ambivelance (spelling?) echoes mine. It's environmentally dreadful to mine in this fashion and does dreadful things to the people. On the other hand, it means jobs. If the W years taught us anything, it is that whatever the cost, coal burning is not going away any time soon - no burning without mining.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that was me, sorry!


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bermudaonion said...

I had to look to see if you commute to my son's school since they do the common book project too. Their book for this year is Ecological Intelligence, so I can see you're at a different school. Strange as this Weather Has Been sounds like a great book.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, When we traveled through W.VA by car we always tried not to have to stop, because we found that everything is far from the highway. So we never saw what you describe.

Elizabeth, I feel like that a lot, and our solution at the manor of non-necromancy is to contribute almost exclusively to local causes. That's why I'm not falling all over myself to get some of the cookies over at The Siren, Syncopated--it's a good cause, but not a local one for me. Most people do have to choose what they can spend their time and money on.

Susan, oh this is part of the "clean coal" debate? Didn't know that!

ReadersGuide, I didn't go into how the characters felt about the place because I'm not sure exactly what to think about it. It seems such a luxury. There's a section where Lace is scornful of the people who don't go outside and don't have good parks in a townhouse development in North Carolina. And yet many, many people have to live that way and they don't sink into depression. I had great neighbors in my townhouse development in Maryland.

Lemming, I just heard a coal industry-sponsored ad on the radio here touting jobs as a reason to vote against some environmental measure. Now I'll have to pay more attention.

Jeanne said...

Kathy, I commute to Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. They usually pick fiction or a memoir, which can mean there's less of a political agenda. Ecological Intelligence sounds like a book that could get some debate started! My undergraduate college (Hendrix College in Conway, AR) also had a common book when I matriculated in the fall of 1978. I didn't much care for it, but I read it, and then was disappointed that there wasn't much discussion of it when I got to campus.

FreshHell said...

While I haven't read the book and can't comment on it, I am familiar with this form of mining while is an environmental NIGHTMARE. Massey Coal Co. is a local company (or used to be) and they are motivated by nothing more than money. The people who work for these companies have little choice and are used and abused by these companies and have been for decades. Lee Smith's novels - the earlier ones - touch on mining communities in the Appalachians. Not on this particularly insidious form of mining but on the folks who mine in general.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I hadn't heard of Lee Smith before, but see she writes non-environmental novels, too.

FreshHell said...

She's a novelist and writes about what she knows, mostly, which is Applachaian folks. But not always.

There was an AP story about mountaintop removal mining today in the paper. Robert Kennedy Jr. is quoted during a rally. It's a devestating, earth-destroying tactic. IMHO.