Strange as this weather has been

WEEREAD: Strange as This Weather Has Been

Told in alternating viewpoints by matriarch Lace Ricker See and her three eldest children, Ann Pancake’s debut novel Strange as This Weather Has Been is an urgent, poignant story about the environmental damages inflicted on West Virginia by the coal industry. Set in present-day Logan County, Lace and her children see firsthand the destruction of the land, with mountaintop removal coal mining being the latest in a long line of man-made environmental crises. The novel switches between the viewpoints of Lace and three of her children—Bant, Dane, and Corey—with an emphasis on fifteen-year-old daughter Bant. There is also the stray chapter from the viewpoint of others in the community such as Mogey, Bant’s uncle, and neighbor Avery Taylor.

With most of the high-paying coal jobs going to the out-of-state “scabs,” there are few job opportunities in the area. Most families have moved out of the holler entirely, pushed out by pollution, flooding, and lack of economic opportunities. The Ricker See-Turrell family itself had spent two years in North Carolina where Jimmy Make is able to find mining work, but the family returns when Lace, aching from her mother’s passing, demands they come home to West Virginia. Like her mother, Bant knows the pain of coming and going from their brief stint in North Carolina: “get my body killed here, kill my insides if I left.” The frustration is compounded by a feeling of helplessness as they watch the natural world around them continue to be polluted, torn up, and reshaped by the coal companies.

With little other work to be had, Bant takes a summer job painting the so-called “scab motel” for out-of-state miners working on the mountaintop removal project. Lace works at the Dairy Queen, and Jimmy Make, unable to find a local mining job and considering himself above minimum wage, attempts to find work as a handyman. Even twelve-year-old Dane finds work assisting Mrs. Taylor, a neighbor with coal-related health problems and limited mobility. Mrs. Taylor is convinced doomsday is upon them and Dane, seeing their polluted waterways and entire mountains reshaped, fears she is right. It doesn’t help that her favorite topic aside from the end times is the Buffalo Creek disaster which she, her husband, and son, Avery, lived through. Ten-year-old Corey, meanwhile, spends the summer collecting metal scraps washed up from a recent flood with the hopes of building his own four-wheeler while coveting his neighbor’s ATV.

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After overhearing conversations about grassroots environmental movements at the Dairy Queen, Lace hesitantly becomes involved. Jimmy Make argues against it, claiming it would do nothing but stir up trouble for the family. Having worked in coal, Jimmy Make knows the breadth and power of the industry: it owns politicians, blacklists miners who speak out, and controls popular opinion. Despite seeing the enormity of what they are up against, Lace finds she cannot stand idly by and becomes entrenched in the movement, going so far as to attend protests in Charleston and speaking publicly about it. But when tragedy hits home, Lace is forced to choose between continuing the fight or fighting to keep her family together.

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With characters that encompass nearly every aspect of the Appalachian genre, Strange as this Weather Has Been paints a scene that is at once familiar and strange. Like many other novels and memoirs penned by West Virginians, Pancake has a deep understanding of the area and its people. This is reflected in characters like Lace and Bant, who feel a pull to the mountains even as they’re razed; in Jimmy Make, who is desperate for coal jobs even as they break and age him; and in Mogey, who feels so close to the land that “to walk in woods was a prayer.”

Though the book’s focal point is mountaintop removal, Pancake makes it clear that the destruction of Appalachian land is nothing new. Lace observed that what made leaving and grieving for loss of place was the slow, unescapable pace of it. “It’s gradual being taken away for the past hundred years, by timber, by coal, and now, outright killed, and the little you have left, mind thinking, heart knowing, a constant reminder of what you’ve lost and what you’re about to lose. So you never get a chance to heal.” Losing her homestead is intrinsically tied to losing the parents that made her love it, trapping Lace in her grief for both.

What sets Pancake’s novel apart and makes it so worthwhile is its currency and its urgency. Many works that make up the backbone of the Appalachian genre typically span from the early to mid-1900s, but Strange as This Weather Has Been is set primarily in the present-day. Readers cannot and will not be able to put down Pancake’s book and reassure themselves that things have gotten better. “This is now and this is critical”, says Pancake.”Our land and our bodies are still in jeopardy. Don’t look away.”

Strange as This Weather Has Been is insightful, heartbreaking, and powerful; above all else, it is an urgent call to action. Tapping into the region’s rich oral tradition and recognizing the role of storytelling, Pancake used interviews from people living in the Appalachian coalfields and created an authentic family facing a real-world dilemma. The Ricker See-Turrell family may be fictional, but their plight is not, nor is it near settled. Using callbacks to the Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972, Pancake points to a very frightening cycle of industries destroying a land and its people with little to no repercussions.

The theme for Earth Day 2021 is “Restore Our Earth.” If you are looking for a piece of Appalachian literature that fits the theme, I can think of no novel more fitting than Strange as This Weather Has Been. It will certainly have readers thinking about how to undo the many environmental calamities Appalachia and its people continue to face.

Strange as This Weather Has Been is insightful, heartbreaking, and powerful; above all else, it is an urgent call to action. Learn more about this book in our latest WEEREAD series.

• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.