Shepherd to welcome award-winning author of novel on mountaintop removal
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SHEPHERDSTOWN – Though novelist Ann Pancake has long made her home in Washington State, she says she can’t escape deep concerns about how mountaintop removal mining is changing Appalachia, including her home state of West Virginia.
“This mining practice is the most earth-destroying activity I’m aware of,’’ Pancake explained in a phone interview. “Appalachia is a place that’s deeply connected to me. I care about its land, its people and its culture, and mountaintop removal mining is annihilating all three.’’
Next week at Shepherd University, Pancake will speak about the 2007 novel she penned on the subject of mountaintop removal mining. “Strange as this Weather Has Been” is the book chosen for the school’s 2013-14 Common Reading Program – a title designed to create a shared intellectual experience on campus and within the community.
University officials announced “Strange As This Weather Has Been” in June and will revisit it throughout the academic year. Besides Tuesday’s talk and a pre-lecture theme dinner in Shepherd’s dining hall, other presentations, films, panel discussions and an art exhibit are planned.
Pancake, who lived with her family in Nicholas County before moving to Romney in the 1970s when she was still in elementary school, will speak at 7 p.m. at the Frank Center Theater. The lecture is free and open to the public.
“Strange As This Weather Has Been” explores how a small West Virginia community deals with the practice, which involves employing explosives to blast off as much as 500 feet of mountaintop to get to the seams of coal below.
In a review in The New York Times, a critic called the book “powerful, sure-footed and haunting.” The novel is described as a “fine, ambitious first novel is about something simple: what it’s like to live below a mountaintop-removal strip mine. … The most powerful passages depict the lives of children in West Virginia whose only playground seems to be desolation.”
Pancake, who teaches writing at Pacific Lutheran University, said she became focused on the dangers of mountaintop removal mining as she worked with her younger sister Catherine, a filmmaker then based in Baltimore, on “Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice.’’ Like Pancake’s novel, the 2006 documentary would go on to win a number of prizes.
She remembers first seeing a strip mine at age 6 or so when she lived in central West Virginia. Her father, a minister as well as a hunter and outdoorsman, later gave a sermon against the practice. “All this sunk into me deeply at a very young age,’’ Pancake said.
As the sisters visited southern coalfields to interview citizens for the film, Pancake said she realized she would write not a short story – her standard practice – but a much longer work. “We kept hearing this riveting, moving, horrifying stories and pretty soon I knew a short story would be too small to contain everything I wanted to say,” she said.
Pancake, who earned degrees from West Virginia University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Washington, said some of her research actually started a full decade before she came up with the idea for “Strange.” During graduate school in Chapel Hill, N.C., Pancake wrote her dissertation on social class and American literature, including the effects of industrialization on Appalachia.
“I was also studying literature written about Appalachia, which led me to an interest in the way Appalachians were and are represented,” she said. “And how this mostly derogatory caricature has facilitated the exploitation of the region and our natural resources.”
Pancake says she hopes her novel continues to make citizens aware of mountaintop removal mining. She said it’s vital that people in and outside of Appalachia see the practice’s potential for devastation.
“My goal would be to have the average American experience life through the eyes of these characters,” she said. “I would like to see the level of compassion raised.
“This is happening in Appalachia now, but if companies get away with it here, they’ll try other kinds of exploitation other places. It really affects all of us.”