The Human Cost of Coal

How does it feel to have a mountain scooped up and dropped on your family and your home? That is the question answered by author Ann Pancake’s first novel, “Strange as this Weather Has Been,” selected as this year’s Common Reading, a work worth reading and discussing for the Shepherd University community as a whole. But, beware. It could cast a spell on you. The controversy about mountaintop removal is often considered from the outside looking in.  The usual focus is on the devastation left in the wake of a profitable coal industry, which has long been the economic mainstay of West Virginia. This novel takes a fresh look at the issue, from the inside out. The book chronicles the collateral damage of a family being buried alive. The central character, Lace Ricker See grows up with the subliminal message that “Your place is more backwards than anywhere in America and anybody worth much will get out as soon as they can.” After graduating from high school in 1983, she receives enough in scholarships and other financial assistance to attend West Virginia University, telling herself that once she leaves southern West Virginia she will never return. But Lace discovers that she cannot leave her home without losing herself. Despite grades good enough to put her on the dean’s list, she gets pregnant and drops out after her first semester. Life Happens. Her dreams die inside, and she is reborn. Fifteen years later, when the narrative begins, Lace is a mother of four with a job at the local Dairy Queen. Memories of Morgantown are a nostalgic regret she cannot afford, too busy dealing with the more-than-sufficient evil of the day. It turns out that the Dairy Queen is also the hub of the unofficial local political action committee to inform the public and defy the coal companies. Lace has learned the wisdom of the land.  “You can live off these hills” her mother liked to say. Now, from her cohort at the Dairy Queen, Lace receives a new education about the dangers encroaching.  She learns that the new methods of mining have removed entire mountains and filled nearly a thousand miles of streams and killing everything around. A central chapter of the novel renders a first-person account of the Feb. 26, 1972, disaster at Buffalo Creek when coal slurry dams burst upon mining communities, killing many, injuring more and leaving thousands homeless. The Pittston Coal Company called the event “an act of God,” meaning they were not to blame. Although the people belong to the mountains, the mountains belong to the coal companies. Based on oral histories the author collected from residents of the coalfields, each chapter is identified by the name of one of the characters and told from that point of view. The reader thus enters the inner thoughts and feelings of very different well-defined individuals, including Lace and each of her four children. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of the book is that none of the chapters are devoted to James Makepeace Turrell, known to everyone as “Jimmy Make.” He is the 15-year-old father of Lace’s first child, eventually her husband, an unemployed union miner and a major force in the plot. Although this novel takes a strong stand for environmental conservation, its main point is that it is not just the landscape, but also families being torn apart and turned bottom up. This book may keep you up at night, thinking about the reality of a topic often discussed in stereotypical terms. It can make you feel you do not know what you thought you knew. And that is a good place to start.

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