What readers are saying about Strange As This Weather Has Been
A Pushcart Prize-winner offers a searing indictment of the coal industry in this memorable debut novel. A native of West Virginia, Pancake used interviews and real events to shape the fictional story of Lace, Jimmy Make and their four children. Lace first met Jimmy when he was 15 and she was old enough to know better, a college freshman at home for the weekend. The two begin messing around and soon Lace is pregnant, drops out of college and moves back home to the kind of life she thought she had escaped. When her daughter Bant is born, Lace rediscovers the mountain and feels a belonging to the land of her ancestors. Four years later, Lace and Jimmy marry and have son Dane, and then Corey and finally little Tommy. They fall into poverty, mainly due to the new kind of strip mining now used in West Virginia. Well-paid union miners are gone and instead scab laborers work at what's called mountaintop removal-an environmentally devastating method of coal extraction that leaves the landscape utterly barren and the people who live there in danger of both flooding and chemical poisoning. Lace becomes involved in a grassroots movement to save the area from further damage, but nobody wants to listen to poor folk from the hills, and so the family teeters on the verge of destruction. Lace works at Dairy Queen, Jimmy watches TV all day and 15-year-old Bant has a job painting the scab boarding house (where she begins a flirtation with a worker). Dane, meanwhile, lives in terror that the next flood (nothing to do with us, says the coal company) will kill them all, while Corey and Tommy live in the smaller world of childhood that can be just as treacherous as the hollowed-out mountain looming above theirhouse. Pancake, incorporating the cadence of the region, beautifully balances the tragedy of this family in decline with the inevitable destruction of their homeland. The best kind of reportage fiction: evocative and meaningful.
Jack Pendarvis, The New York Times
Ann Pancake's fine, ambitious first novel is about something simple: what it's like to live below a mountaintop-removal strip mine. As one family negotiates the Vesuvian landscape of their wrecked hollow, its natural defenses against flooding uprooted and trashed, readers may think of the aftermath of Katrina, another man-made disaster. But until the book dips into explicit activism, this tragedy seems less the work of greedy businessmen than of a terrible old god…Pancake—she is a distant relative of the short-story writer Breece D'J Pancake—makes her point in Strange as This Weather Has Been in a powerful, sure-footed and haunting way: People aren't dirt. But they know when they're being treated like dirt, whether in the Lower Ninth Ward or the hills of West Virginia.
A hard-living Appalachian family weathers a contemporary coal boom in the debut from West Virginia native Pancake. Soon after their first meeting in the 1980s, college freshman Lace See and 15-year-old local boy James Makepeace Turrell (Jimmy Make) conceive their first child. Nearly 20 years later, Lace is uneasily settled as a mother to Jimmy's four children as a flurry of strip mining and clear cutting make the mountains she has known since childhood unrecognizable. One summer right after a strip-mining induced flood, things come to a head. Lace's environmental activism ramps up; daughter Bant, working at a local motel, discovers her allegiance to the mountains and her sexuality; each of Lace and Jimmy's three sons (Corey, Jimmy and Dane) is touched in turn by the collapsing economy and environment. Lush descriptions of the landscape are matched with a hurtling stream-of-consciousness narration to great effect: one doubts neither the characters' voices nor their places in a very complex poverty.
*Starred Review* With her beloved West Virginia hollows and valleys under constant onslaught by a savage coal-mining industry whose raping of the land threatens her home with devastating floods, Lace Ricker finds herself battling callous forces both without and within her own family. As thunderous blasts weaken their home's foundation and poisoned wastewater infiltrates their well, Lace and her daughter, Bant, secretly become more determined to find a way to stop the mines, while Lace's husband pragmatically refuses to fight the union bosses, and her sons tentatively, then calamitously, accept the challenges and adventure of life lived in the shadow of imminent danger. By tracing the devastating impact of coal mining through the eyes of Lace and her four children, Pancake's powerful debut novel evinces a poetic pathos and authentic respect for the land and the people who love it. To comprehend the egregious and tragic environmental damage mountaintop-removal coal mining has wrought on the once pristine vistas of Appalachia, one should read any one of many excellent exposés. To understand the human toll such destruction exacts, one must turn to fiction, for novels such as Pancake's reflect deeper, timeless truths. Haggas, Carol
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.
Jonathan Crimmins, The Stranger
"What Pancake writes of West Virginia is true of her novel—"This place so subtly beautiful and so overlaid with doom." It is a novel beautiful in its sense that this time we may have finally ruined the eternal renewal of spring. It is a novel painted with the desperate autumn colors of an old earth. Lace's daughter Bant says to her grandmother, "I'm too young to have nothing but past to believe in." The idea of having nothing to believe in but a past is awful. Yet mountain after mountain, Pancake suggests, we borrow from the future to pay for the present, justifying it with a seemingly inexhaustible hope that borders on delusional. As Americans, we are perpetually making a heaven of the future. If we aren't rich, our children will be. If we aren't educated, our children will be. If we are destroying the earth, our children will save it. Pancake's novel shows how hard it will be for our children to face what we've spent so long refusing to see, which, I suppose, is why the phrase strange as this weather has been doesn't end, but instead just trails off.
Over the last several years, critics have anxiously looked to fiction to account for the drama of reality. Expecting insight to come from the obvious landmarks, they've assessed the emerging series of 9/11 novels—Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, John Updike's Terrorist, Don DeLillo's Falling Man. And yet, I have a feeling that, over time, those novels will seem merely symptomatic, while Pancake's novel, wedding so carefully character, setting, history, love, land, and labor, will represent better the cultural urgencies of our time."
“This gripping novel, based upon recent events in coal country, heralds the emergence of a major literary talent.” The Seattle P-I.
"This book will hold you, too. It should be required reading for all concerned citizens but, unlike most diatribes, this novel will please your senses and your heart as well as fill your mind." Arts Magazine
"...one of the bravest novels I have ever read." Wendell Berry
"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." Dory Adams, In this Light
“Pancake’s book is the best I’ve ever read about my state. It is filled with wisdom and fire and grace.“ The Chicago Tribune