In this haunting coming-of-age book, Lauren Wolk introduces us to the thoughtful and kind 12-year-old Annabelle who is growing up in rural western Pennsylvania in 1943. Wolk opens up her book with the words of the main character: "The year I turn ed twelve, I learned how to lie."
What follows is a story about love, friendship, and betrayal. We are introduced to a new student in Annabelle's class, Betty Glengarry, a child who is violent and cruel. We are also introduced to Toby, a veteran of the Great War, who suffers from an mysterious mental illness that renders him as simply strange to the small rural community. And finally, we are introduced to Annabelle's best friend, Ruth, a fragile child caught in the crossfire of violence and cruelty. When all three of these lives collide, Annabelle is faced with the biggest challenge of her young life.
It's easy to compare Annabelle to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed many reviewers do. Yet, perhaps because the story takes place in a landscape that is more familiar to me than the deep South, I found young Annabelle to be more courageous, more realistic, and indeed, more human than many young heroines found in coming-of-age novels.
I have eagerly looked forward to Wolk's second book since I read her first novel, Those Who Favor Fire, a novel that takes place in a small town that rests on top of a burning underground coal fire. Wolf Hollow did not disappoint.
In her newest novel, Jennifer Haigh returns to the small Pennsylvanian town of Baker Towers, a world she first explored in her 2005 book by the same name. In Baker Towers, she explores coal mining, but in Heat & Light, she opens her book with a short history of oil.
Then, she delivers a single line that stayed with me as I read the rest of the book: "More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath."
As someone who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am well aware of how defined my world was by what was beneath me. I am also well aware of the state's problematic relationships with the environment and the blue collar/working class world. Haigh's newest novel takes us into the heat of this relationship with the story of how fracking invades and thus, changes the lives of those who live in Baker Towers, Pennsylvania.
It's through this story that learn about Rich Devlin, who leases his mineral rights to finance his dreams of farming. We learn about his young daughter, whose mysterious illness may or may not be because of environmental issues that have been caused fracking. We learn about a lonely preacher, who falls in love with one of the workers who is fracking the land. We learn about organic dairy farmers, Mack and Rena, whose business is hurt by the environmental issues going on around them. All of their lives are intertwined by the arrival of fracking in their world.
Yes, Haigh's novel is political. There's no denying that. Still, she doesn't offer any clear cut answers to the questions she poses through her characters about a world where fracking may be both a blessing and a curse.
Perhaps that is what I loved most about this book.
Visit Haigh's website to learn more about Heat & Light and her other novels.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.