Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Gray Mountain by John Grisham, 2014

Coal was in the news in India, for all the wrong reasons, when I read Gray Mountain by John Grisham. In spite of its critical role in energy and economic growth, no news about coal is ever good news. 

Recently, India’s Supreme Court reversed a key government decision granting over two hundred coal blocks to power, cement, and steel companies because they were allocated in an “ad-hoc and casual” manner and “without application of mind.” Then, last week, environmentalists warned that India’s proposed coal expansion would prove catastrophic for the rural poor because of high levels of air pollution and coal dust, absence of emission standards, and lack of safety measures. In fact, one report predicted that India’s overdependence on coal-fired power stations and the increase in emissions would result in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths by 2030. And we’re not even talking about coal mine accidents.

If this review is beginning to sound like a news report, it’s because Grisham’s new legal novel—it’s not really a legal thriller—reads like a “docudrama,” as one reviewer on Amazon put it. I thought I’d add a little perspective on the fossil fuel which is big business for coal companies throughout the world and at the same time a harmful and terrifying reality for poor people who work with it. Coal comes with a very high human cost, as evident from Grisham's latest book.

In Gray Mountain, the author gives us one such reality—strip mining in Appalachia, the coal country, and its disastrous impact on inhabitants of the region. To be honest, I didn’t know this sort of thing happened in America. Whatever happened to human right? To checks and balances?

Grisham narrates his rather heartbreaking, albeit well-documented, tale of Appalachian coal and its consequences through his principal character, Samantha Kofer, and a few lawyers who have made fighting crooked and powerful coal companies their life’s mission, often at grave risk to their lives.

Samantha, young and attractive, is the daughter of separated and seasoned lawyers. Her mother works in the Justice Department and her father is an aggressive lawyer who once sued airlines after crashes. She loses her comfortable but high-stress job in Manhattan in the financial crisis of 2008. She is furloughed with several others when her global law firm downsized. As a consolation she is allowed to keep her health benefits provided she interns with a nonprofit organisation for a year, but she’ll draw no salary. If all goes well after a year, her law firm will take her back with no break in seniority.

The city-bred girl chooses the free Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the small town of Brady, Virginia, the heart of coal country, and is soon caught up in the murky and deceitful world of coal mining.

In Brady, she meets Mattie Wyatt, head of the aid clinic, and her nephew Donovan Gray, a noted trial lawyer. Mattie and Donovan, who share a tragic family history associated with coal, are feisty lawyers fighting for the poor and the oppressed. While Mattie’s aid clinic handles smaller and non-criminal cases, Donovan is vengeful and goes after big coal with big money, suing them for millions of dollars in benefits due to black lung disease and other serious issues. From them and their clients Samantha learns what it feels like to be at the receiving end of coal companies with friends in Washington D.C. and backed by law firms with muscle power, and what it takes to stand up and fight for your rights.

And then one day Donovan dies mysteriously in his own plane crash and his brother, Jeff, who idolises his older sibling, enters the scene. He is not a lawyer but behaves like one as he prepares the final ground for litigation against the coal companies that was set in motion by his brother. He is depending on Donovan’s lawyer-friends and Samantha Kofer to take up the gauntlet.

For Samantha, what was supposed to be a temporary phase in her legal career soon turns into the most decisive period of her life. She is caught between her dream life back in New York and an uninspiring existence in Brady. Her selfish interest pulls her in the first direction; her conscience drags her in the other.

Gray Mountain is more than just a legal tale. It’s a chronicle of the sordid side of coal mining in Appalachia complete with a detailed explanation of strip mining and its dangerous import, land grab and displacement of poor folks, prolonged suffering and painful death from black lung disease, and economic starvation of coal families.

While the story is “interesting,” as my blog friend Bill Selnes, a lawyer in Saskatchewan, Canada, rightly observed in his review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, it’s not as thrilling as many of John Grisham’s other novels. I found it inconclusive in some respects.

Recommended, if you are a Grisham fan.

11 comments:

  1. I haven't read too many Grisham's in my time, though I have a few lurking - I need to find them. The ones I have read I have enjoyed.
    Not too sure that I'm drawn to this one in all honesty. I'm fairly sure I have read something with a similar theme regarding land grabs by energy outfits. The title and author is eluding me at the minute though.
    Irrespective of country and effect of environment, there doesn't seem to be much that stands in the way of big business and corporation profits. Governments merely pay lip service to environmental concerns - decisions always seem to be made today for short-term benefits without focus on long-term impact.
    Cheers for the review and local update.

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    1. Col, thank you. I haven't read many of John Grisham's legal novels and I'm planning to read at least a couple of them in 2015. Environment awareness is growing in India but obviously a lot more needs to be done.

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  2. Prashant: Thanks for the kind words and mention of my blog.

    Your review aptly covers in more detail the battles with Big Coal featured in the book where I focused on the Legal Aid aspects. It is always interesting to me how different reviewers draw from books.

    I can see major issues in India coming over coal.

    Thanks for a fine review.

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    1. Bill, you're welcome, and thank you for the appreciation. I enjoyed reading your review. As a lawyer you were in a better position to provide a legal perspective on the critical issue of strip mining. I'm glad I read two good legal novels this year.

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  3. I found it interesting to read both yours and Bill's reviews of this book, and the issues are important ones - I'll certainly bear the book in mind.

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    1. Moira, thank you. GRAY MOUNTAIN was a good book. I only wish I'd read all of Grisham's novels for a better comparison.

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  4. Thanks Prashant, it's a big issue and glad it's being tackled in popular fiction. I've never read any of his books though I have seem most of the movies (THE RAINMAKER seems to be the best to me, TIME TO KILL by far the worst).

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    1. Sergio, you're welcome. I think I have seen more films based on Grisham's novels than read his books. I do, however, intend to read some of his other books in 2015. I liked his THE CHAMBER quite a bit.

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  5. Sorry to come to this post so late, Prashant. I enjoyed your review. Your post and Bill's have convinced me I will have to read this book.

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    1. Tracy, no problem. You're welcome any time. I like the way John Grisham writes, There is seldom a dull moment in his narrative.

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  6. And this was a very powerful novel highlighting all the problems associated with strip mining of coal and the ruin of many beautiful parts of Appalacia by the mining companies and their powerful forces. It was a page turner and gives the reader a new perspective of life in the coal mining areas and power-less people who are the victims of all that has gone wrong there.

    Marlene
    Top rated Real Estate Lake LBJ

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