Jennifer Haigh's sixth novel returns to fictional Bakerton, the setting for her second book, "Baker Towers," a story of life and death in Pennsylvania's soft-coal country. This is the region where she grew up among the played-out mines.
Several years ago, the promise of prosperity from a new way to extract natural gas gripped the impoverished western part of the state, complete with its own vocabulary of new words such as "fracking" and "Marcellus Shale." Landmen swarmed over the farms and woods to sign drilling leases with landowners who were promised big money as the gas freed by the fracking process would rule the energy market.
Haigh taps into this economic boom and bust era with the fervor of a native shocked by fracking's toll on the environment and inhabitants she treasures. Her wide-ranging cast of characters, from a driller from Texas to a delicate Bakerton child, all pay a heavy price in damaged relationships and health. As one character thinks, "It was hard to keep track of other people's suffering" as the energy boom proves too successful for its own good.
The novelist adds the damage caused by the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in central Pennsylvania to the list of those hurt in the pursuit of heat and light in the Keystone State, where its exploitation began with the oil boom after the Civil War.
This is an angry book from Haigh, uncharacteristically harsh in her language and view of human nature. Fueled by the energy released in her native state, it more than earns the symbolism of its title.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.