There are some books so turgid that you can smell their plodding evil all the way from the parking lot of the Jiffy Book Mart. Others provide you with a temporary thrill at the beach and take your mind off the sharks gnawing through human flesh only yards from your towel. Then there are the rare volumes that are a feast for the soul and mind and that provide rich new treasures with repeated reading. Ann Pancake's Given Ground is just such a book.
Given Ground is a collection of 12 stories written over a 13-year period. These are poetically textured tales of class and identity struggle in contemporary Appalachia, with the natural environment of West Virginia itself a main character throughout. As the narrator of "Crow Season" observes from the bed of his truck: "The way the land lays in here looks more like a human body than any land I've ever seen, pictures or real. And I often wonder if that's the reason for the hold it has on us."
It's the human characters' sensual connection to nature that separates them from the "outsiders," "imports," and "weekenders" who come into their land through outside wealth, often to exploit the resources of the land or the labor of its people. No one wants to trust folks who "talked like people on TV, that whitewashed talk of people from no place."
At least two of the stories--"Ghostless," from which the quote above comes, and "Bait"--deserve to be anthologized and passed on through time. "Ghostless," the first story of the collection, is the tale of a young boy who is taken from his home when his father dies and sent to live with relatives. His father saw ghosts regularly, but the spirits didn't frighten father or son. "Here was thick with ghosts as it was with deer, my daddy told me, all of them pushed in from the outside. Think, he told me. There's no place else for them to go." When the son leaves his home, he leaves the ghosts behind too.
The only fearsome ghosts in these stories are the metaphorical ones characters become when cut off from their roots. This theme shows up often in this collection, most notably in "Crow Season," wherein a character reveals, "I keep no mirrors in my place. I tell what I look like in others' faces, me make-them-gasp identical. I know that I've grown into a ghost."
"Bait" is somewhat of a comic-relief piece set in the middle of the more serious and brooding stories, although the humor is dark and gently macabre, along the lines of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. A teenaged bait-shop employee deals with her morbid boss--a differently abled uncle who believes he is a rescue worker and is constantly in search of bodies--and the possibility that she may be pregnant. As she shepherds her uncle and answers people's questions about the latest car wreck on the accident-prone road in front of the shop, she frets about her late period, fearing that if she is pregnant she will be caught forever in this feeble whirlwind of life.
Pancake's stories are often visionary in their way of revealing a peoples' consciousness, which is alive with an almost pantheist appreciation of nature. The tales in Given Ground place her in the tony lineage of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Toni Morrison.