A plainspoken novel, but one with intensely lyrical moments, about the devastation of the West Virginia landscape—and the devastation to the local communities—owing to mountaintop removal.
Cole Freeman is making it, but just barely. He works as an aide in a nursing home but supplements his meager income with the more lucrative trade of selling prescription drugs he either steals or buys off of the local elderly population. (In the small hollers of rural West Virginia, there’s plenty of demand for escape.) Cole is to some extent a victim of his grandfather’s Pentecostal religion, for this patriarch divides humanity into two types: the saved and the damned. Cole’s mother, Ruby, was consigned to the latter category, as her father labeled her a slut for her unredeemable “whorish” ways. For 17 years she was absent from Cole’s life but returns when Cole is 27. Cole has had an off-again/on-again relationship with the wild and tattooed Charlotte, but he’s more interested in Lacy, a waitress at the Wigwam restaurant who lives an upright life and is morally committed to fight the depredations of the Heritage Coal Company, whose construction of a sludge dam threatens several of the communities along the creeks and streams. Cole’s life is further complicated by the reappearance of Terry Rose, a childhood friend with whom he used to get drunk and stoned. Terry’s idea of entrepreneurship is to cook meth, but this activity gets him both in trouble and in debt. Cole would like to change his life—to get out of the drug business, get a nursing degree and perhaps settle down with Lacy—but he feels tied down by circumstances that resist transformation.
Sickels has great insight into the emotional life of West Virginians, and he refreshingly presents them as fully realized characters rather than as clichés or stereotypes.