Part of a series of book reviews I wrote for WV independent bookstore Taylor Books…
Taylor Books Review Ann Pancake: Strange As This Weather Has Been
By: V.C. McCabe
“And I asked myself, what is it about this place? What? I pressed my forehead against the oak. Because for a long time, I’d known the tightness of these hills, the way they penned. But now, I also felt their comfort, and worse, I’d learned the smallness of me in the away. I understood how when I left, I lost a part of myself, but when I stayed, I couldn’t stretch myself full.”
“Strange As This Weather Has Been” is the brilliant, heartfelt, and utterly Appalachian debut novel by West Virginian author Ann Pancake. Each chapter of the book is told in through the voice of one member of a poor family in West Virginia. First young ambitious Lace See, as she meets and marries wild Jimmy Makepeace Turrell (a.k.a. Jimmy Make). Then each of their four children, my favorite being tomboy Bantella (Bant), and back again to an aged and weary Lace as she comes to terms with the disappointment that is her marriage, the overwhelming love she feels for her children and her mountain home, and the horrors that the coal industry wreaks on the land around her.
The characters of Lace and her daughter Bant in particular perfectly convey the emotional conflict that plagues so many of us native West Virginians. That suffocating frustration of a backwoods existence that refuses to keep up with the rest of the modern world. The anger fed by shame that those of us in younger generations experience when faced with the poverty, ignorance, and prejudice that so often prevail in this state. Yet all this negativity is juxtaposed with the inescapable pride we feel over the lushly rugged beauty of the Appalachian mountains as well as the strange admiration that bubbles up in our throats when contemplating the strength, determination, and sheer endurance of the people here and their way of life. The longing for the freedom and progressive thinking of elsewhere versus the familiarity and comfort of these breathtaking landscapes and the simple life of our country home.
Pancake effortlessly weaves these themes into her fictional tapestry, along with some not so subtle rants about the coal industry and mountaintop removal. Ann has been a longtime activist against the destruction of the environment in WV and she makes little attempt to hide her anger in the book, yet voices her cause through the humble characters she based on residents she interviewed here in the mountain state. Even the tragic events in the novel are based on reality – most disturbingly the Buffalo Creek disaster of 1972.
“Strange As This Weather Has Been” is a book that left me feeling both unsettled and oddly comforted. For as sad as this piece of art imitating life is, Pancake’s writing is superb and she endows the character of Bant with enough strength and determination to wrangle a glimmer of hope even out of the most dire of circumstances. Pancake just happens to be a relative of the writers of “The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society” and her uncle is also an author. Writing talent surely runs strong in that family. This novel may not be destined to become a classic, but it definitely should.
“‘Mom!’ I shouted. By then the creek was blasting through our yard, torrenting against the house underpinning, terrible bright brown with white chops raging in it, and down its rapids torpedoed trash and metal and logs, logs, logs, them crashing into the upstream end of the house, careening off and spinning around, and as I watched, one tree batter-rammed the fiberglass skirting and just jammed itself stuck, the loose end whip-tailing in current. ‘Mom!’ I screamed.“