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Posts Tagged ‘Appalachia’

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob MarleySeven years after her acclaimed novel, Strange as this Weather Has BeenAnn Pancake returns with a bravura collection of short fiction, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley.

In two novellas and nine stories largely set in her native West Virginia, Pancake explores the consequences of one of the most brutal industries in America — coal mining — and its collateral damage: poverty, drug abuse, domestic abuse, suicide, child neglect, alcoholism and violence.

What a joy it is to hear her wild, true-blue voice again. Now based in Seattle, Pancake grew up in Romney, a town that in so many ways — all of them portrayed here, in these keenly felt tales about the loss of Appalachian identity and culture — she has never left.

The book opens with “In Such Light,” a novella about a troubled college freshman desperate to escape her rural background. Home for the summer, by day, Janie’s a “popcorn girl” at a once-glamorous theater; by night she hangs out with her mentally disabled uncle Bobby and his neighbor, a local bad-boy with a mean streak Janie mistakes for sensitivity.

Though she relies on Bobby for company, his freakish behavior and peculiar speech patterns embarrass Janie, who sees in them reflections of her own limitations. In both characters, Pancake hints at the damning legacy of Big Coal’s greed and waste. Janie’s impressions of the still functioning parts of her uncle’s brain, though, evoke an enduring ethos no amount of environmental devastation can wipe out:

“Some parts had melted in the heat … tarnished and clotted together like clock guts after a fire — the part that did numbers, the part that managed cause and effect, the part that gauged how funny things really were — while other parts in that dark crowded space still gleamed and whirred, unscathed — the part that could sustain a conversation, the part sensitive to her grandmother’s tireless social skill drills, the part that remembered things.”

As the weeks pass, her uncle’s poignant search for companionship and love reconcile Janie to values buried deep in their shared past. Their relationship, like so many others in Me and My Daddy, echoes the characters’ unbreakable attachment to the land and to family.

All of Pancake’s characters undergo some form of haunting. In the endearing “Mouseskull,” 10-year-old Lainey wears the still-decaying titular skull round her neck as an amulet against the ghosts that haunt her family home, with its “few rooms that comfort, many that scare” — including the one her grandfather killed himself in several years earlier. (more…)

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No doubt when North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe famously warned that “you can’t go home again,” he didn’t mean “because your home town might disappear off the face of the map.”

Yet that’s exactly what happens in Amy Greene’s much anticipated second novel, Long Man (Knopf, $25.95), a story about a handful of characters facing the end of their 150-year-old way of life.

Like Ron Rash, Greene has cultivated her own corner of the universe, a place in which people have been tied to the land as far back as they can remember. She writes about an American culture on the brink of extinction—the folkways, kinship, and sense of place once common to East Tennessee, where Greene grew up.

Greene introduced this territory in her first book, the gothic, brooding Bloodroot (2010), with a tale of an Appalachian family that shared mysterious powers handed down for generations, a “touch” that could be used for good or bad. Their spirituality, based on an age-old reliance on nature and ancestral beliefs, collided with the soullessness of the outside world and in the end, survived only in memory and story.

With Long Man, Greene leaves folk magic behind in favor of a realistic, historically accurate portrait of a doomed community during the summer of 1936. At the height of the Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority has teamed up with the local power company for a land grab of epic proportions, relocating everyone in the fictional town of Yuneetah to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

The waters of the dam’s reservoir will eventually swallow the town. “By the end of the year lagoons would be made from clefts in the mountains. Fish would swim in dens once inhabited by foxes.” But not everyone has agreed to leave. (more…)

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Last year, Silas House, the author of Clay’s Quilt and co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountain-top Removal, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “My Polluted Kentucky Home.” It referred to a sit-in at the offices of governor Steve Beshear to protest his support of mountain-top removal, and said in part,

Since it was first used in 1970, mountaintop removal has destroyed some 500 mountains and poisoned at least 1,200 miles of rivers and streams across the Appalachian coal-mining region. The news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem. But it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.

Mountain-top removal, most commonly used in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, is exactly what it sounds like: In order to get at elusive seams of coal buried deep inside the mountains, explosives are used to blast the the mountain tops and ridges off, bringing them down hundreds of feet and piling the rubble into 200-foot-high walls in the valleys. The material used for blasting is ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel—the same thing used to blow up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City—but stronger. Ten times stronger.

House goes on to itemize some of the other consequences of mountain-top removal: arsenic in drinking water, destruction of roads by overloaded trucks, polluted pond water, the threat of sludge dams collapsing, and air clouded by pollutants.

Those of us who protest mountaintop removal do it for the environment, but we’re also fighting to prove we are not unwarranted burdens. Our water and air are being poisoned, but the most dangerous toxin is the message that people don’t matter.

Which brings me to the debut novel by Carter Sickels, The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, $15), a searing, unsentimental story about a rural, tightly–knit community stripped of its humanity by greed and indifference, and the damaged few who still cling to the land they’ve called home for hundreds of years.

Once a heaven for the people who grew up, lived and worked there, Dove Creek, West Virginia, now looks more like hell. Smells like it, too, with the odor of “sulfur and scorched earth” lingering after the mining company explosions each day. After a decade of brutal mountain top removal, the constant blasting, flooding and pollution has driven the natives either out of their homes or out of their minds. Their water’s undrinkable, their houses are cracked beyond repair from the explosions, and the coal company’s offers for the now worthless land they own keep dropping.

But some still hold fast to this wasteland of dilapidated houses, dried-up wells, deserted churches, “shot-up road signs and little white crosses,” abandoned gas stations, and “scarred places where trees had been cleared for mining, like giant razor gashes across the land.” Double- and single-wide trailers house the human wreckage of a ruined community—including one Cole Freeman, a 27-year-old nursing home aide who has lived there all his life.

Raised by his grandparents when his mother abandoned him as a baby, Cole’s ties to the land—what’s left of the 20 acres his family has owned for generations—keep him determined to stick it out. His plans to escape crashed and burned ten years ago, and anyway, the business he’s run for several years—call it his night job—is profitable enough to convince him to stay. (more…)

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