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.

Guest post: West Virginia in Sunlight and Shadow

Map: West Virginia, setting of I Remember: West Virginia in Light and Shadow by Elizabeth Gaucher on andreareadsamerica.comThis is a guest post from writer Elizabeth Gaucher who submitted in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is West Virginia.

My maternal grandfather scissored his ​own father out of ​a wedding portrait​: his mother stands smiling, aglow, and alone. Poppa was young when he cut the photograph, the eighth of ten children, too young to know that in West Virginia, dead and absent coal miner fathers can’t be ignored​. They live forever, whether you want them to or not.​

West Virginia​ is​ conflict. Our history highlights wars like the Battle of Blair Mountain and intense skirmishes like the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. My people fight hard. Gunshots, axe handles, knives, and balled fists take lives. Our cultural landscape is scarred. On a recent visit out of state I heard myself trying to explain life in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth ​was​, “We are a culture of winners and losers.”

It was so obvious once I said it that I hardly knew where to start explaining. My dinner companions were confused by a way of life that routinely gives a benefit to some and a penalty to others. That someone or some group doesn’t always have to suffer is foreign to us. The country needs cheap electricity, so some families are just going to have heavy metals in their drinking water. It’s too expensive to delay ​coal ​production, so from time to time equipment will break and fatalities will occur. Communities thriving in other parts of the universe have either never accepted this dynamic or have so solidly rejected it that hearing it is still real is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but one is still surprised to learn about​ it.

We don’t resolve things in Appalachia. ​We allow our wounds to ​become ​scars. When I look at mountaintop removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates, I wonder where the line is when people stop trying to get well and resign themselves to cataloguing marks on their skin. Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love.​ We ​are tied to the land, to the creeks​, to the​ sky and hills. ​We are bound by ​a birthright and burdened by a collective pain. I imagine my great-grandfather was like most of us, that he held a conviction ​that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would endanger hills and streams and air ​would be defeated. What none of us know at first is that our place is a commodity, and that our loyalty means a lifetime of loss.

Breece D’J Pancake once wrote this to his mother from Charlottesville, Virginia:

I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply-rooted in my soul. I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I’ll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don’t want to look for it, because I might find it and have to leave.

We all leave pieces of our hearts in West Virginia when we go. Looking for them is foolish, irresistible, dangerous. My family on both sides is made up generations of Appalachian people, but we are in other mountains now. We will pray and dream. We will remember the dead; but going forward we will live in the light.

Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher is a writer and West Virginia native living with her husband, young daughter, and Goldendoodle dog in Vermont. Gaucher’s published work appears in books by Westminster John Knox Press, Seventh Star Press, and Visibility Press. Her online essays and op-eds appear on River Teeth, The Revivalist: Word from the Appalachian South, Essays on Childhood, Esse Diem, and The Charleston Gazette. She is a degree candidate for a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) from WV Wesleyan College. Follow her on Twitter @ElizGaucher.