A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When John Grisham’s novels first came out, I would read them like everyone else and then quickly forget them. They were the literary equivalent of eating a meal at McDonald’s, enjoyable while being consumed, but having no lasting value. I even enjoyed some of the films made from the books. What I mostly recall from all of those early ones is wondering why anyone would become a lawyer, since they work ridiculously long hours at mind-numbing paperwork, spelling doom to any relationship or remotely healthy lifestyle.
Then Grisham’s books started changing, they began to have morals and issues and memorable characters. The trend started with The Litigators in 2011, where a burnt out lawyer joins a small firm and takes on a lawsuit fighting a big pharmaceutical company whose cholesterol medication has harmed patients, some fatally. 2013 brought Sycamore Row, a sequel to A Time To Kill, an early book which hinted at what his books could become. Sycamore Row revisited some of the characters and what happened to them, within the lasting effects of racism in America, it stood on it’s own as a story with reverberations.I had more than one fellow reader recommend it to me.
Last year, Gray Mountain joined the ranks of Grisham’s “issue books”, as I think of them. Featuring Samantha, a financial lawyer at a huge firm in New York City which is laying off hundreds during the recession of 2008. With few options, she takes an unpaid internship with Mountain Legal Aid in Brady, Virginia and experiences culture shock in the tiny Appalachian town. Here, Samantha meets miners with black lung disease who are denied pensions because coal companies hide doctor’s diagnoses, parents whose children were killed by a six ton boulder falling on their home when an illegal mining blast causes an avalanche and a factory worker left homeless because of an unethical credit card mix-up. Mining companies are at the root of many of the area’s problems, operating in careless and dangerous ways with the modern methods of strip mining wherein the tops of mountains are literally removed to create open pit mines which are understaffed by nonunion workers. It’s all so wasteful, too, the timber is clear cut and not even sold for lumber, but dumped into the surrounding valleys along with topsoil and exploded rocks, just to get it out of the way, so as to get to the seams of coal. The coal is then overloaded onto trucks which speed down the narrow mountain roads to the processing plants, often causing wrecks with other vehicles, in which they are never at fault. What streams are not blocked by the mountain leftovers are ruined by runoff from the open mines. By the time a mine is denuded of coal, companies often declare bankruptcy to avoid restoring the land, so the damage is never repaired, though companies with new names and the same faces spring up to take the old ones’ places, but without their liabilities. Samantha learns about all of this and more, as she gets involved with another lawyer in town who is actually taking on the coal companies in various cases and may possibly be involved with some ecoterrorists in the area. As always, Grisham presents these facts in a nonpreachy way with emotional hooks through characters. One of the few criticisms I have of the book is that it ends a bit abruptly, but at a well timed place in the narrative.
I was familiar some of the mining practices because of my reading on environmental topics, but I would imagine that many readers were not, so I was pleased that they were explained in a relatable way. Nonetheless, I am still disappointed that there was no practical outcome of the book remaining on the bestseller list for months. Was it too much to hope for some protests, calls for stricter regulations and accountability of coal companies? I’ve found no reports that my fellow Americans were moved to voice their disapproval. Are we just too apathetic? Remember when books such as Silent Spring and Uncle Tom’s Cabin could ignite real change to make the world a better place? Are books only able to ignite trends now, and not improvements? Perhaps that is a question for another post. But the fault is not Grisham’s, as he is definitely using his popularity to bring tough issues to the public and moving beyond the simple suspense of his early success. I commend him for that, I only wish that his readers could evolve as well.
Doubleday 2014 384 pp. ISBN 978-0385537148