book review: Heat & Light

heat and light

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh. Ecco| May 3, 2016| 488 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780061763298

RATING: 4.5/5*

Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. For decades, coal fueled Bakerton and the country. In this town, multiple generations worked in the coal mines. Few left to pursue higher education or a different path. Bakerton sits on the Marcellus Shale, a huge natural gas deposit. Tapping into this natural gas source utilizes questionable techniques and could lead to possibly dangerous and deadly consequences. Haigh creatively examines fracking through nuanced, broken characters and a detailed sense of place. She vividly describes the process as well as the rough crews attracted to these high-risk, high-paying short-term gigs– mostly men who work hard and party harder. Not all that different from the coal mining days.

“Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need.”

Some residents choose to lease their land while others remain wary of fracking and its side-effects. Prison guard Rich Devlin wants to run a farm while his wife Shelby believes that the water might be poisoning their daughter. Organic dairy farmers Mack and Rena remain against the drilling and refuse to lease or sell their land. Rena meets an environmental activist and becomes involved in anti-fracking issues. Influxes of out-of-state drillers disrupt and divide the town. Relationships may implode. Money changes the perspective and drive. Their lives might improve a bit. For many this seemingly easy money might resolve their struggles and allow them to expand their goals.

“The town is named for its coal mines. The prison guard is named for his father. Both feel the weight of their naming, the ancestral burden: congenital defects, secondhand hopes.”

Bakerton remains in a bit of a limbo. Alcohol, meth and religion allow people to avoid feelings and band-aid emotional wounds. At turns fascinating, sad, infuriating, provocative and authentic, Heat & Light pulls in the reader from the jump. This well-researched, impressive novel exposes many angles of fracking. In order to capture this present day dilemma, Haigh effectively dips into the past with the Three Mile Island disaster as well as coaling. The novel generously addresses an important hot-button topic with sharp prose and a stellar cast of characters as well as an intriguing story-line.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Putnam.

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