FROM THE TORTURED BELLY of the Appalachians comes a novel consuming in its desire to reveal the depth of grief caused by mountaintop removal. In Strange as This Weather Has Been, debut novelist Ann Pancake employs a poverty-stricken West Virginia family — a couple and their four children — to tell a story of catastrophic loss and redemption. These are characters you will love even before you begin the book, for they represent the people who are living in those blown-apart mountains and will keep on living there after you’ve read the last page.
The story is mostly told through the mother, Lace, an awakening environmentalist (or shit-stirrer, as her husband calls her), and her teenage daughter Bant. In different ways, both women are coming of age. Themes of power and powerlessness run through the novel. At one point Lace muses about the literal power of coal, an energy so great it can bring about the strange weather referenced in the book’s title: “[T]he way power will fight for power . . . just the pull, the draw, of so much power in the ground, and the kind of hold that makes.”
What is most marvelous about this novel is its brilliant sense of place. “This place so subtly beautiful and so overlaid with doom. . . . Killed again and again, and each time, the place rising back on its haunches, diminished, but once more alive.” The unbearable sadness at its destruction reaches a crescendo in a surprising chapter near the middle of the book, the only time we hear from Lace’s gentle uncle, Mogey. “We live in our mountains. It’s not just the tops, but the sides that hold us.”
Pancake’s novel is shockingly pure, like holding gold in your hands, or wheat — all the chaff winnowed away. I have been waiting for a book that will show people what is happening to Appalachia. Here it is. Read it. Every time you flip a switch, you will remember this family.