Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review: Heat & Light

Summary: Forty years ago, Bakerton coal fueled the country. Then the mines closed, and the town wore away like a bar of soap. Now Bakerton has been granted a surprise third act: it sits squarely atop the Marcellus Shale, a massive deposit of natural gas.

To drill or not to drill? Prison guard Rich Devlin leases his mineral rights to finance his dream of farming. Meanwhile his neighbors, organic dairy farmers Mack and Rena, hold out against the drilling—until a passionate environmental activist disrupts their lives.

Told through a cast of characters whose lives are increasingly bound by the opposing interests that underpin the national debate, Heat and Light is a dispatch from a forgotten America—a work of searing moral clarity from one of the finest writers of her generation, a courageous and necessary book. -- Ecco

My review can't possibly do justice to the latest novel by Jennifer Haigh titled HEAT & LIGHT. Even prior to reading this novel, I would have included Ms. Haigh in my all-time list of favorite authors. However, this book definitely reinforced my opinion. It is outstanding and I can't recommend it enough.

HEAT & LIGHT is a sweeping novel about the fracking industry and the effects it had on the families who live in the fictional town of Bakerton. Like a few of her earlier books, this story takes place in Bakerton, a town once rich in coal but now depressed with the closing of the mines. When it's discovered that the town sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a potential source of natural gas, many residents think that their lives could take a turn for the better.

However, it's not exactly an easy decision to sell the rights or even allow them to drill on the land. Needless to say, families and neighbors are torn apart with their decisions. Rich Devlin has been working as a prison guard but wants to be a farmer. He doesn't have the money, but if he leases his mineral rights, this dream might not be out of reach.

Meanwhile, his neighbors, Mack and Rena, are organic dairy farmers and are adamantly against drilling. The disruption to the land will affect their cows and even their organic certification, and it could have a devastating effect on their business.

There are other characters in the story that are also affected by the decision "to frack or not to frack" including energy executives, leasing agents, pastors, drillers, and other Bakerton citizens; and Haigh does a wonderful job in portraying their plight too. Through this cast of characters, she explores not only their personal lives but also the national debate about the ethical implications of fracking.

I adored HEAT & LIGHT and can honestly say it's one of the best books I've read in 2016. I loved the plot, the characters, and especially Ms. Haigh's writing. She is truly one of the best writers out there right now. What I really appreciated about HEAT & LIGHT is how she used these incredibly interesting characters and their stories to feature an even bigger issue on how our country deals with energy.

Ms. Haigh's prior novels dealt with coal country, specifically the fictional town of Bakerton which readers see again in this book; and it's one of the reasons that I adore her books so much. My grandfather was a coal miner and her descriptions of the people and the town just reminded me so much of my family. Needless to say, I've seen what's happened to the area my parents grew up in; and it's just so sad to see how the decline of the coal industry has affected so many families.

In HEAT & LIGHT, I found it especially interesting to see what happened when residents of Bakerton were (possibly) given a chance to turn their lives around. I'm sure that the decision to lease mineral rights and drill is not an easy one, and I don't doubt for a minute that it's torn apart families and long-time neighbors. What I loved about this novel is how these individual's stories were portrayed. I definitely have my own opinion (as I'm pretty sure does the author); however, she did a great job in showing just how difficult and controversial the decision to frack is for everyone involved (except maybe the corporate CEOs.)

I can't really express how real these characters were to me. Ms. Haigh brought these people to life in a way that just resonated with me. I'm sure it didn't hurt that I feel like I know these Bakerton residents because they so closely resemble my family members, but I think most readers will recognize their traits because their feelings and motivations are universal among all people. Besides showing how the decision to frack affected their lives, I loved that she also explored so many complex issues including drug use, mental health, love, marriage, and more!

To make this book even more special, Ms. Haigh used these characters' plights to feature an even more controversial topic -- fracking and the effect it has on our environment. I am the first to admit that I don't know much about this subject matter, but I did start reading about it after I finished this novel. She brings to light so many really important issues about fracking and energy production, and I do think it's something our country needs to discuss.

HEAT & LIGHT would make an excellent book club selection; however, I wasn't able to find any formal discussion questions. It should be apparent by now that there is plenty to discuss about fracking, corporations and government. But there is also a tremendous amount to talk about when it comes to these characters and their actions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include families, marriage, love, drug use, second chances, obligations, mental health, parent/child relationships, secrets, priorities, and dreams.

Overall, HEAT & LIGHT is an entertaining and important book. Highly recommended!


Anita LeBeau said...

I love Jennifer Haigh too, and this book is on my long list. I almost purchased it recently, because I need more books you know...ha ha. I should make use of my library.
Wonderful review...makes me even more eager to read. Thank you

bermudaonion said...

I thought this book was terrific too. I love the way she takes the lives of ordinary people to highlight important issues. I'm embarrassed that I knew so little about fracking.

Dorothy N said...

I just finished reading Heat & Light yesterday. I really enjoy Jennifer Haigh's writing and I have read several of her books. This is a wonderfully told tale with vivid, well-written characters. Loved your review

Lori Spielman said...

Love your review and the comments above. I will be looking for Jennifer Haigh's books, thanks to you!

Beth F said...

So relevant to those of us who leave here too.