I finally finished reading Ann Pancake’s astonishing novel. I say finally, because I took my time with it, read some sentences three times, four times. I paused between chapters to let one character sink in before I entered the next character’s soul. Pancake has been compared to Steinbeck, writing about rural poverty, but her writing reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver, weaving heart-breaking stories of strong women in love with the earth, and of William Faulkner, creating a southern town with its own dialect and fateful family stories through difficult, beautiful, sometimes nearly inscrutable sentences.
Like Kingsolver, Pancake sometimes errs on the side of the didactic, putting speeches into her characters’ mouths, in this case to tell the tale of mountaintop removal coal mining. But the speeches themselves will break your heart. Or at least they broke mine. She tells the story of one family living in a W. Virginia holler underneath a coal company’s destruction. Chapters shift from one member’s point of view to another’s, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. Each character’s voice and mannerisms come to life, from the strong-willed mother, Lace, to the slow, solemn son, Dane.
The beauty and loss of the holler provide the ground on which Pancake builds her story, but it is in the relationships and moods and changes of her characters that the drama unfolds. Death and birth, loss of jobs and loss of virginity, deepening awareness of love and need, the devastation of an environment and of a marriage, carry the story. Pancake’s compelling language and her entry into the anguish and desire of each character drive this novel. Her love of the land oozed into this reader’s soul, making me long to go ginseng hunting, to lose myself in the thick, diverse forests she describes.
I highly recommend this novel, both for the incredible true tale of unutterable loss of natural treasure to corporate greed, but even more for its unique mountain voice and masterful storytelling.