Andrea Reads America: West Virginia

Map of books set in West Virginia
Andrea Reads America: West Virginia

West Virginia is about an hour west of where we live in Virginia. On weekends, the parking lots at the Wal-Mart and Target in our neighboring town are filled with West Virginia license plates because they are the closest ones to some of the folks near the Virginia / West Virginia border in our part of the state.

We were awed by West Virginia’s emerald beauty when we camped there one summer. The Appalachian mountains there are deep and lush. They’re too steep and rocky for farming and are crowded close enough together to make them hard to pass (or build on). Most of the state is rural, and other than the dangerous jobs in mining coal, there aren’t a lot of money-making opportunities in West Virginia. In 2018, West Virginia had the 4th highest poverty rate in the US.

The three books I read reflect the green abundance, poverty, and coal influence in the state.

Strange as this weather has been book coverNovel: Strange as this Weather Has Been
Author: Ann Pancake, native West Virginian
Setting: 1990s West Virginia during a coal boom

Strange as this Weather Has Been takes place in the 1990s and early 2000s in a hollow down the mountain from a strip mine. It is a book is about what happens below those mines on the mountainside, and what happens to the people living there when mountaintops are blown up so others can have “cheap coal”: massive floods that wash homes away, poisoned streams, secrecy and bullying by the coal companies, and as always, the poor losing out to the rich. It never seems to matter much when it’s the poor whose homes are destroyed.

Honey, you won’t never beat coal. It’s who has the money, the rich people always win, that’s how it’s always been, especially in the state of West Virginia.

This book has a tremendous sense of place, with verdant descriptions of the Appalachian mountains, how close the mountain people are to the land, and how they could sustain themselves from the mountain until the moutaintop removal devastated everything.

At first I didn’t believe everything they said — how nearly a thousand miles of streams had been filled with the rock and dirt that used to be the mountaintops, and how the fill had killed everything there. How what soul was left on the flattened tops was compacted so hard that if anything ever came back besides the grasses and shrubs the company sprayed on, it wouldn’t be for at least several hundred more years. How over fifty percent of the electricity in the United States came from coal.

The tension in the book isn’t just between the strip mining companies and the local population. The bigger tension is whether to stay or whether to go, and how the “If you don’t like it, just leave” argument is a bullying tactic that doesn’t take into account that leaving costs money, not just to get away, but to live elsewhere. More importantly, it doesn’t account for a person’s love and connection and claim to their homeland. This novel is a love story for the West Virginia mountains, and the heartbreak that happens when the object of your love is destroyed.

175AMemoir: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Setting: 1960s/70s West Virginia

Set partly in the western desert, partly in West Virginia, and partly in New York City, The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of growing up in a family that was always on the move as her dad lost job after job and her mom opted not to work so that she could paint. The most vivid parts of the book, and the deepest poverty and abuse, take place in West Virginia.

The house was a dinky thing perched high up off the road on a hillside so steep that only the back of the house rested on the ground. The front, including a drooping porch, jutted precariously into the air, supported by tall, spindly cinder-block pillars… Since we couldn’t afford to pay the town’s trash collection fee, our garbage was really piling up.

Neither parent changed their behavior even though their kids had no food and were pilfering lunches from school garbage cans. Yet despite the poverty, Walls presents it like an adventure, through the eyes of an innocent, if scrappy, child who doesn’t know any different. She does a magnificent job of making her parents sympathetic despite the abuse they subjected their children to, and she presents a life of hunger and filth as a romp rather than a tragedy.

We were also always dirty. Not dry-dirty like we’d been in the desert, but grimy-dirty and smudged with oily dust from the coal-burning stove.

What I love most about Walls’s book, aside from her wry humor, is how over and over again, she perfectly captures the lush beauty, and sometimes heart-of-darkness wildness, of the thick Appalachians.

During the winter you could see abandoned cars and refrigerators and the shells of deserted houses in the woods, but in spring the vines and weeds and moss grew over them, and in no time they disappeared.

John Henry Days book coverNovel: John Henry Days
Author: Colson Whitehead
Setting: Talcott, West Virginia

It’s 1996 and the US Postal Service is launching a set of folk hero stamps, one of them being John Henry, a black steel-driver from West Virginia said to have beat a steam drill in a race to bore through a mountain to build a rail tunnel. John Henry’s home town is having a celebration to commemorate the stamp, and John Henry Days is the stories of the people who come for it: a group of New York City junkateer journalists, a woman whose father was obsessed with John Henry and ran a John Henry museum out of their home in Harlem, a stamp collector, and the owners of the dumpy motel the out-of-towners stay at.

The book jumps around in time and points of view, sometimes to story-lines that never get picked back up, and the jumps were distracting. They made it too easy to put the book down – there wasn’t a flow to it, and it was too much work for me as the reader to connect the dots. It’s won lots of awards, though, so someone gets it :D. I just didn’t. The scenes in West Virginia were spot on, and I could picture the small town and the mountain John Henry had to drill through.

Andrea Reads America: Washington

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Washington state
Andrea Reads America: Washington

I’ve never been to Washington, but I sure do want to go now. When I read the state, I  immersed myself in a Seattle bakery, on a sailboat on Puget Sound, and in the humor of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I love fresh bread, being on boats on salt water, and laughing, so this was a pretty fantastic mix of books for me.

Bread Alone book cover Novel: Bread Alone
Author: Judith Ryan Hendricks, worked in a Seattle bakery
Setting: Seattle, WA

I first read Bread Alone several years ago when I was really into baking bread. I was excited to get to Washington on my reading project so I could read it again. Filled with scenes of coffee on wet days in Seattle, wood for stoves, and the comforting smells of fresh bread baking, it sucked me in immediately and me want to give up everything and become a baker.

Outside, the rain hasn’t stopped so much as paused, and the air is cold and scoured clean.

Bread Alone is a novel about a woman, Wynter, who is going through an unexpected divorce and who finds her way back to herself through baking bread. It’s a comforting book, and this probably won’t be the last time I read it, especially since it has recipes. It’d be a great book for fall or winter.

Just rocky, conifer-covered mountains thrusting up from the cold, blue Pacific. Air so clean it sears your throat with a sweet ocean smell.

Before the Wind Novel: Before the Wind
Author: Jim Lynch, born Seattle, lives in Olympia
Setting: Puget Sound, Washington

As a novice sailor, I was excited to finally find a novel about modern, local sailing (vs. round-the-world adventures). The main character of Before the Wind comes from a family of sailboat racers, and he lives on his boat in a marina on Puget Sound. The marina scene itself is entertaining, filled with the types of characters you’d expect who live on boats, and the types of boats you’d expect them to live on if you’ve ever spent time in small marinas on the coast.

What I really appreciated about this book was that the author doesn’t shy away from using the language of sailing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it. It puts the reader inside the mind of a sailor, what they think about, what they notice, what they fear, and who they read to learn more:

The line [from Joshua Slocum] our father made us memorize was: “To know the laws that govern the winds, and to know that you know them, will give you an easy mind on your voyage round the world; otherwise you may tremble at the appearance of every cloud.”

But this book isn’t just about sailing — it’s also a great story about a dysfunctional family who raced sailboats together when the kids were kids, the sister who had a magic about her on a boat, and their attempt to reunite as a family to sail one last race.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Book: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Author: Sherman Alexie, born Spokane, WA
Setting: 1970s Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA

Set primarily on an Indian Reservation in Spokane, Washington, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a book of short stories that are both hilarious and dispiriting, and are fiction based on on Alexie’s childhood and teenage years on the Reservation.

This morning I pick up the sports page and read the headline: INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.

Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much.

There is deep love and respect and a code of living among the tribe, but the primary tone of the stories is one of sadness, loss, and a broken people. Funny and modern, the stories are wonderfully written, enough so that I wanted to keep reading despite how sad it made me feel.

“Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away,” she said. “And that hurts because I don’t know how much of a future we have.”

Alcoholism is rampant in these stories, and mixed with that is a weaving of the mundane and what Alexie called Reservation Magic when someone asked if he’d describe this book as including elements of Magical Realism. This magic is woven throughout other Native American books I’ve read as well, as if the people of the tribes walk between the worlds.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette book cover Novel: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple, lives in Seattle
Setting: Seattle, WA (and Antarctica)

What a refreshing, funny, and smart read! Based in Seattle after an catastrophe in LA, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of a genius architect, Bernadette Fox, her unassuming (also genius) husband who works at Microsoft, and their daughter Bee who goes to school at an elite private school overseen by overachieving, overbearing, helicopter parents. Bernadette is an eccentric recluse, which the busybody power-moms from the school cannot stand about her.

What I loved about this book, aside from the fact that it made me laugh, is that it shows what can happen when a creative genius is not creating: they destroy instead. Since the book sometimes uses narration from Bee, and sometimes correspondences between characters as chapters (emails and letters, for example), it’s also a really well-done demonstration of perspective, and how one person can be seen so differently by so many people, and how dangerous that can be.

Andrea Reads America: Virginia

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Virginia
Andrea Reads America: Virginia

Virginia. The state I now live in, and the state where this whole reading adventure began. As I mention in the About page for this Andrea Reads America project, my husband and I have moved many times: from Georgia to Maryland, to Florida and Maine, to Minnesota, and finally, to Virginia. Each time we relocated, I researched our new home not in welcome bureaus or newcomer guides, but through fiction. Well-set novels taught me about the land and its people, its culture, its history, and its idiosyncrasies.

After our family moved from Minnesota to Virginia in 2012, I read several novels set here, including Adriana Trigiani’s entire Big Stone Gap series, David Baldacci’s Wish You Well, and Tara Conklin’s The House Girl with my Virginia-based book club. Then, as now, I tried to read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and abandoned it.

It was settling in Virginia — settling someplace for the first time in our married lives — that made me start reading my way across the US. We were putting down roots, and I still had wanderlust. Now, 6 years later, I’ve almost completed the reading journey. It was nice to come (almost) full circle and read this state again, now that I live here and know it well.

The Known World book coverNovel: The Known World
Author: Edward P. Jones
Setting: 1840s and 50s Virginia

Set in fictitious Manchester County in Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s, The Known World is about a black slave owner, his slaves, and the world of slavery in Virginia. Shockingly, black slave owners are not fictitious — it did actually happen, though it was rare. The Known World explores what that was like for the owner, his slaves, and his former slave parents who saved for years to free him from slavery. As if slavery weren’t awful enough already, the betrayal of “owning your own” was immense.

The book jumps around a lot in time and sometimes it was hard to keep track of the characters. Overall it was an eye-opening glimpse into a world that would have never occurred to me existed.

Flowers in the Attic book coverNovel: Flowers in the Attic
Author: V.C. Andrews, born Portsmouth, VA
Setting: 1970s mansion in the Virginia mountains

I first read Flowers in the Attic in middle or high school, and it seemed so forbidden at the time. Now that I’ve read it again, I see why! Children locked hidden in an attic while their widowed mother waits for her rich father to die so she can inherit his wealth, an adolescent brother and sister developing sexually with only each other to turn their attention to, a wicked grandmother who only sees sin, not love, in the world. And all set against the backdrop of Virginia mountains a short train ride to Charlottesville, the children bearing the beauty of the seasons from behind windows, never to be outdoors, only seeing the sun and stars and leaves and flowers through glass.

At points it was terrible to read, not because of the story but because of the writing — so! many! exclamation! points! — but it was still a page-turner in its twisted terrible way.

Wish You Well book coverNovel: Wish You Well
Author: David Baldacci, born Richmond, VA
Setting: 1940s southwest Virginia: coal country

Set in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, Wish You Well is fiction that pulls from Baldacci’s childhood experiences in that region. It is an account of a 1940s family whose lives are isolated from any world off the mountain, who do not earn money to provide for themselves, but who work the land to survive.

Baldacci nailed the dialect – he wrote it masterfully, so that you can hear the characters’ speech, without the dialect being distracting or tiring. And he captured a way of life on the mountain that most of us will never know. Somehow, though, there wasn’t enough depth for me. Or maybe complexity. I can’t pinpoint what it was that had my mind wandering at times, or that kept me from getting truly engaged, but Wish You Well is worth a shot if you want to disappear into the mountains for a while, and particularly if you are interested in the coal mining issues currently going on in the Appalachians (blowing up the mountains to empty them of their coal and then abandon them, piles of rubble, barren and stripped of life).

Big Stone Gap book cover Novel: Big Stone Gap
Author: Adriana Trigiani, born and raised in VA
Setting: 1990s Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

The Big Stone Gap series is a fun, beach or poolside race-through-the-story and the characters type of read. While there are certainly tensions and conflict, the overall memory I have of these books is that they were lighthearted, and I loved the characters.  The scenery is lovely as well. I’m pretty sure I read the entire series like a chain smoker smokes cigarettes, lighting the beginning of one off the end of another, in the space of a couple of weeks.