The premise for John Grisham's Gray Mountain is highly promising: a young Manhattan real estate lawyer is put on furlough by her firm after the financial crisis bites in 2009 and find herself undertaking pro bono work for the down-trodden and forgotten in the Appalachians of Virgina.
The execution is excellent. Samantha Kofer arrives from the Big City with her tail between her legs to find "Big Coal" acting in about as unconscionable manner as it's possible to imagine. There she teams up with the few brave, under-resourced souls fighting for those whose lives and homes have become mere collateral damage in the coal industry's destructive rush for the holy dollar.
This is Grisham on the territory he does best: providing a voice for the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. Gray Mountain is an angry, snarling, magnificent polemic against the - frankly - evil practices of the coal companies and is a worthy addition to a body of work that has already taken on racism and the death penalty.
The story of Samantha Kofer is smartly handled - she becomes embroiled with a campaigning lawyer's obsession to make one of these corporations pay for one of their more heinous crimes. But it's almost incidental - it's just the platform from which Grisham tells the real stories. Of companies taking several hundred feet of the top of million-year-old mountains to get at the coal more easily (and profitably); Of miners with "black lung" that is slowly and painfully killing them being forced through long, expensive and incomprehensible legal processes to recover the compensation that is their due; Of wealthy industrialists knowingly poisoning the water supply (and populations) of entire towns because paying to clear up their mess would shave a few bucks off the all-important bottom line.
Grisham describes an industry that hasn't so much lost its moral compass as knowingly crushed the instrument underfoot. It is a bewildering, infuriating and deeply saddening tale of man's inhumanity to man, and his total disregard for our physical environment. It reminded me of the mine slave colony depicted in Paul Pierce's Red Rising novels. But that's science fiction! This is the present day United States no more than a few hundred kilometres from Washington DC.
The heroes of the story are the activists and lawyers Samantha finds fighting for the Appalachians and its people. They're well drawn, authentic, credible and hopelessly out-numbered and over-powered - skirmishing on the fringes of a battle that appears long lost.
Bravo to Grisham for giving these people their voice and telling their tales. I've long believed that his extraordinary commercial success has over-shadowed his exceptional gifts as a writer (nobody writes prose that is easier to read) and story-teller. Equally, it can be easy to overlook his campaigns for social justice, which are powerful, precise and passionate. Gray Mountain is an important book.
Reviews of previous Grisham novels:
Sycamore Row (2014)
Playing for Pizza (2007)