Most of what I’ve read in the past year and hope to read for the next falls into one of two camps. The division reflects how I live divided always between two beloved places: Appalachia, my spiritual home; and the Pacific Northwest, my physical one. At times, I find the division a grief. At other times, a gift. As I look back over my have-read and to-read lists, I’m filled with gratitude for the gift.
2009 was a rich year for Appalachian writers and those who like to read them. Just the past few months have brought four new works on mountaintop removal mining, including Silas House and Jason Howard’s Something’s Rising, a rousing and historically important collection of interviews with and essays about Appalachians fighting mountaintop removal. Howard has also edited We All Live Downstream, an anthology of poetry, short stories, essays, and novel excerpts, again, written by people directly involved in the mountaintop removal struggle. Plundering Appalachia, edited by Tom Butler and Doug Tompkins, features photographs and essays on the mining practice, and Silas House, Shirley Stewart Burns and Mari-Lynn Evans have published Coal Country as a companion to Evans’ new film of the same name. (I should note that Shirley Stewart Burns’ 2007 Bringing Down the Mountains is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive discussion of mountaintop removal available.) Two more books I’m looking forward to are Ron Eller’s highly praised Uneven Ground (2008), a history of economics, “development models,” and community in Appalachia since 1945, and Chad Montrie’s To Save the Land and People (2003), a history of resistance to Appalachian strip mining.
Here are a few more very recent books by Appalachian writers, all written out of a deep connection to place:
- Unthinkable: Selected Poems, 1976-2004, from the fierce and original West Virginia poet laureate Irene McKinney;
- Lark and Termite, the National Book Award finalist by novelist Jayne Anne Phillips;
- Upheaval, a collection of short stories by Kentuckian Chris Holbrook;
- Bucolics, by poet Maurice Manning; and
- Thin Places, in which West Virginia native Ann Armbrecht reflects on the places of Nepal and the human soul.
Now I turn toward the norther, wester, and wetter part of my place identity. A year ago, I saw an exhibit of Salish Coastal art at the Seattle Art Museum. I had no background in Northwest Native art and went to the exhibit out of sheer curiosity, but the experience was so profound that it launched for me a year of transformative reading about Northwest Coastal art, culture, and shamanism. Here are some of the most memorable and affecting books of my excursion so far:
- Tangible Visions: Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and Its Art by Alan Waldman, haunting and sublime;
- Story As Sharp As A Knife, Robert Bringhurst’s translations of classical Haida myth, surrounded by his brilliant reflections on anthropology, literature, aesthetics, and more;
- The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Valliant, which examines Haida Gwaii’s past and present, the history of Northwest logging and trade, and a contemporary outlaw environmentalist;
- Shamanism: An Expanded View of Reality, a collection of scholarly articles on the subject edited by Shirley Nicholson;
- What I’ve Always Known, Tom Harmer’s first-person account of studying with inland Salish elders;
- Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows, by Melissa G. Post, a retrospective of Singletary’s stunning interpretations in glass of traditional Tlingit art;
- Monkey Beach, a novel by Haisla native Eden Robinson;
- Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art, edited by Scott Steedman; and
- Eirik Johnson: Sawdust Mountain, by Tess Gallagher, Elizabeth Brown, Eirik Johnson, and David Guterson, bewitching photographs of the devastated beauty of the post-industrial rural Northwest, which take me full circle back to visions of Appalachia.
Finally, I close with five books, all concerned with place and spirit, that I’ve read in the past five years and that still surface in my mind almost weekly:
- Fauna and Flora, Earth and Sky, essays by Trudy Dittmar
- Strange Piece of Paradise, a memoir by Terri Jentz
- Ordinary Wolves, a novel by Seth Kantner
- King Baby, poems by Lia Purpura
- The Abstract Wild, essays by Jack Turner
Ann Pancake is the author of Strange As This Weather Has Been, a novel about a West Virginia family devastated by mountaintop removal mining and a finalist for the 2008 Orion Book Award. Her collection of short stories, Given Ground, was a Bakeless Prize winner.