If my parents' generation grew up threatened by swift, thermonuclear extinction, my son's generation is growing up in the era of global warming and resource wars. For my son, most likely, extinction will seem slow and inexorable. It will seem like the result of his everyday actions: the result of wanting to be warm in the morning when he gets out of bed, of his constant reading and all those trees churned up into paper, of his insatiable love of yogurt, of his imagination, by now, totally intertwined with energy-hungry machines. My parents' generation, living under a superpower that seemed poised to use its nuclear arsenal, envisioned love, likewise, as a radical underground power. They conjured up an equal and opposite release to counter the near infinite violence of the atom.
So what happens if it turns out that love isn't revolutionary at all, but is, rather, a stubborn habit that traps us in the place of our destruction? This painful awareness runs through Ann Pancake's debut novel, Strange as This Weather Has Been. Set in the West Virginian mountaintop-removal coal fields, the novel focuses on the Ricker See family, who live in a hollow not far from where coal is dug 24 hours a day by a 200-foot-tall machine called a dragline. Things are bad and getting worse—no jobs, no money, fish kills, and selenium, arsenic, cadmium, and nickel in the groundwater and the rainwater—and after every storm there's the possibility that the slurry impoundments will burst and drown the families who still own land in the hollows. Ultimately, the Ricker Sees have to decide whether to abandon their home as the coal company moves mountain after mountain closer, permit after permit, from Yellowroot to Cherryboy; when staying means the slow death of all that they love, and leaving betrays love itself.
This irreconcilable dilemma gives Strange as This Weather Has Been the structure of a classical tragedy, a choice that is no choice: sacrifice the thing you love most, or be destroyed. As in the Greek plays, the men in Pancake's novel capitulate, giving in to powers beyond their control; and the women stubbornly resist, waiting for what they love to kill them. Here's Lace describing the weak breathing of her father, a coal miner dying of silicosis. "His lungs are being buried by it, by coal, which is earth, which is this place, and still, he wants nothing but to be out in it. On the land, like me, like us, despite the burying it does, and what the hell, what the hell is it? Why do we have to love it like we do? The Bible says we are made of dust, but after that making, everybody else leaves the dirt and lives in air, except us, oh no. We eat off it, dig in it, doctor from it, work under it. Us, we grow up swaddled in it, ground around our shoulders, over top our heads, we work both the top and the underside of the earth, we are surrounded. And still, Daddy wanting nothing at the end but to sit and look at land. Even though inside it drowns him."
The allure of Pancake's first book—her story collection, Given Ground, which won the Bakeless Prize in 2000—was the gorgeous sound of her sentences. In Strange as This Weather Has Been, the language has more muscle, forced as it is to do the work of real hurt.
Only rarely in the book does Pancake's deftness flag. Mogey's chapter, crucial as a tonal pivot point, verges on heavy-handed; and, at times during Lace's chapters about her bourgeoning activism, the characters stand out from the story as mouthpieces of unfiltered reportage. Otherwise, Pancake writes chapters with the dense thematic cohesion of short stories, and creates characters who are as various and intricate as the landscapes of Cherryboy and Yellowroot before they were stripped bare. Her characters know that leaving is their best chance for survival, and yet, when they leave, they feel the emptiness of everywhere else: of the unnatural orange dome over a city's nighttime, of the constant whir of the freeway, of the people who walk around closed off as if with two doors in front of their faces, "this thick screen door, and behind that, a heavy storm one. And occasionally they'd open the storm door and speak through the screen. But then they'd close the storm door again."
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.