Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Young Attorney Takes on Big Coal in Appalachia

I've been a long-time fan of John Grisham's legal thrillers, but this book didn't grab me the way most of them have. The characters were not nearly as interesting as they usually are and the story was not nearly as compelling. Grisham has written earlier about the economic, social and political problems caused in Appalachia by the big coal companies that have been so critical to the economies of the states in this region, and this book serves principally as a caution about the problems caused by mountain top removal--strip mining on a giant scale to get at the coal embedded in the mountains--which has devastating consequences for the environment and for the people who live in these regions.

Certainly the problem is a legitimate one and might be worthy of any number of novels that might treat it. But Grisham seems so determined to lay out the issues that the story often seems to take a back seat to his expose and the book suffers as a result.

At the center of the action is a young attorney named Samantha Kofer. She's on the fast track at a giant Wall Street law firm, but then the recession of 2008 hits and she finds herself on the street with hundreds of other young lawyers. Her firm offers her the chance to take an unpaid internship out of the city, with the hope that she will ultimately be able to return to the firm when the economy recovers.

Samantha winds up taking a job at a legal aid clinic in Brady, Virginia, a tiny town and a law firm light years away from the life she enjoyed in NYC. Her clients are very poor people who suffer from a variety of problems like domestic abuse, debt, and criminal charges both major and minor. Samantha is a fish totally out of water and has never encountered issues like this before in her career. As a practical matter, until now she's never even seen the inside of a court room.

The community of Brady lives and dies with the coal industry, and the companies that dominate the region are guilty of the most malicious actions against the people and the environment. Even at the federal level, the laws have been written largely to accommodate the coal companies and even then they violate the law right and left, rarely even suffering a slap on the wrist if and when they get caught. Black lung disease and other health problems take a terrible toll on the people of Appalachia, but the companies eat them up, spit them out and couldn't care less about the consequences of their actions. Their only concern is maximizing the numbers on the bottom line. The people of the region are deeply divided about the coal companies. Some are fed up and want to bring the companies to heel, but the majority are grateful for the jobs the companies provide, irrespective of the damage they do.

Early on, Samantha takes a case involving a miner with an advanced case of Black Lung disease. The company for which he works is attempting to screw him out of even the modest benefits that the law provides him as a victim of Black Lung and Samantha agrees to try to help. She soon becomes involved with a pair of brothers, one of whom is also a lawyer, and who are attempting to bring the coal companies to heel by means both fair and foul. Through the course of the book, we watch as the Good Guys attempt to score even a few relatively minor victories against Big Coal. The Bad Guys will fight them tooth and nail and they have a lot more money and other resources to bring to the contest. Before long, peoples' lives will be in danger and the question becomes whether Samantha will even survive, let alone score any sort of a legal victory here.

It's not a bad book, and it may be instructive for people who haven't followed the battle over the activity of coal companies in Appalachia through the years. But Grisham is so determined to make the case against Big Coal that the story suffers. It's an OK read, but not one of his better efforts.

No comments:

Post a Comment