“Heat & Light” by Jennifer Haigh

heat-lightHaigh is one of my favorite authors.  She is an extremely gifted storyteller.  I have enjoyed all her books, from 2003’s Mrs. Kimble to Faith, 2011.  Heat & Light is a sequel to Baker Towers, a 2005 novel that was considered a modern classic about a coal mining town in Pennsylvania during the 1940s.  The community was composed of company houses and church festivals and firemen’s parades (think the movie Picnic).   But of course, due to the nature of the men’s work it was also filled with union trouble and poverty, as well as frequent tragedy.  Eventually, the time came when the mines were closed leaving behind an abandoned population. The hardworking families whose toils fueled America were forgotten.  Baker Towers is historical fiction at its very best.  It leaves the reader realizing how destructive the forces of change can be.

In Heat & Light we are back in the same Pennsylvania area, though now in present day.  The town was given the chance to be prosperous once again.  It was discovered that the residents were living on top of earth filled with natural gas. Most of the residents were farmers and there were many arguments between them regarding whether to drill or not to drill?  Similar to Baker Towers the reader is left wondering if the townsfolk were more cursed than blessed to live on land filled with natural resources.   Once again, it was heartbreaking to read how industries that provide the resources that we need to survive are also the same industries that destroy the small towns providing them.  Many inhabitants were conned into signing over their land and did not receive any of the promised money; that was lost to them through legal loopholes.  (The rich get richer and the poor get screwed).  I’m sure some readers will disagree with the author’s opinion on the controversial topic of fracking, but she makes a very strong case for its deadliness.

Even though I enjoyed the novel, this is the first of all Haigh’s work for which I cannot give a 100% positive rating.  She created many richly written, interesting characters, yet oddly that was a flaw in the story.  Usually when the reader gets an intimate portrayal into the life of each character it heightens the story.  In this book, in some instances, it detracts from the energy of the story.  There were just too many rapidly introduced individuals, some followed throughout the book and some mentioned only once.  I wish Haigh would have written the novel as connecting short stories rather than a novel with disconnected people.  I believe that format would have worked better in this story.  Still, the reader gets to see up close the pain of what life is like in two versions of a hurting blue collar town. Even with my one criticism, this is a complicated and sympathetic American tale written by an excellent writer.



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