Remember September 15, 2008? Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy, the Dow-Jones Index was in free fall, and any industries involved in the flow of money were in a world-class panic. Samantha Kofer worked in one of those industries, within the real estate department at the world’s biggest law firm. Or she worked there up until a couple of hours ago: she’d been “furloughed.” Offered one year‘s insurance a promise to hold her position at the firm if she would intern for a charity, Samantha left her pricey apartment and cushy job in NYC, falling from the 52nd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper all the way to a storefront legal-aid practice deep in western Virginia. Talk about culture shock…
For a high-dollar lawyer who hadn’t seen the inside of a courtroom since she passed the bar, relocating to a practice just a level above small claims court, the two most likely options are that she’d go bonkers or come to love the job. For Samantha, it turned out to be the second: step by step, the twenty-something reached the realization that practicing law shouldn’t mean merely poring over contracts for big-time real-estate developers: you should practice to make some difference for little people. In the coal country of Appalachia, there seemed to be plenty of little people.
Samantha found herself a mentee to another local lawyer, a windmill-tilter constantly at war with the coal companies that control this corner of the mountains. Unfortunately coal companies fight back and the fighting isn’t always in the courts: Samantha learned that lesson the hard way.
John Grisham returns to the sandbox where he got his start, a time when he would publish social-commentary in novels like The Pelican Brief. Never one to pass on a chance to climb onto the soapbox, Grisham’s chosen to pen a novel that seem more preachy than entertainment – or it would were it not for the kernel of truth in the pages. As he describes the local version of strip mining, the industry’s disinterest in their employees’ health issues, and the strategies large corporations employ in the courts, Grisham once again lays bare the dirty secrets of a major industry.
Mountaintop mine, Pike County, KY (source: iLoveMountains.org / wikimedia)
As for Gray Mountain, the novel whose title derives from a strip-mined mountain that had once been home to Samantha’s mentor, Grisham pulls no punches. He ticks off a litany of corporate dirty tricks like goons who intimidate company “enemies,” years-long stalls on claims for black-lung disease, and company control of local politicians and judges – and that’s just the beginning.
Unfortunately, Grisham’s urge to rip the covers from the coal industry tends to make this a somewhat dull novel. So much of the text is devoted to exposing the evil deeds of big coal that the plot drags, at least when compared to previous Grisham works. There’s no thrilling courtroom drama, no hair-raising chase scene, no nail-biting climactic showdown. The cases brought by Samantha’s clients are minor league, and their resolution is the same. Although this is much closer to the real life of a small-town lawyer than novels and film would have us believe, it remains rather blah, However, one can make the case that Grisham did not write Gray Mountain as entertainment, but to educate his readers. If that’s the case, it’s a rousing success.