Gray Mountain is set during the 2008 Great Recession. Our protagonist, Samantha Kofer, is a third-year associate in one of the major law firms in New York: Scully & Pershing.
After the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the firm is firing tons of associates, who are not very likely to find another job due to the economic situation. The only option to disemployment is to be put on furlough for a year, and in the meantime, collaborate with a charity service.
Samantha is forced to leave her comfortable life in the city for a job in a legal aid firm, located in Brady, Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains. She goes from working for millionaire corporations to being the lawyer of poor people, whose wellbeing depends on her will and hard work.
Donovan Gray, a nephew of Samantha's boss, is a talented lawyer and a man with a tragic past. He owns a law firm that battles against the strip mining coal business, a sensitive issue in a town whose economical stability depends on it, but also where these corporations' negligence is causing the most damage.
Samantha's association with him will involve her in a case that could potentially take a huge strip coal corporation down. But where millionaire sums are at stake, making justice can become not only difficult but a life-threatening experience.
“Donovan went to law school for one reason—to fight coal companies on a bigger stage. I went to law school for one reason—to help miners and their families. We’re not winning our little wars, Samantha, the enemy is too big and powerful. The best we can hope for is to chip away, one case at a time, trying to make a difference in the lives of our clients.”
— John Grisham
Why Should You Be Reading it?
The book speaks about strip coal mining and the impact it has on the environment. It describes the devastation of the grounds, the contamination of the earth and water, and the consequence all this has on human health.
Let's start by getting more familiar with some important concepts.
Strip mining is a category of mining in which soil and rock overlying the "overburden" are removed using explosives. By overburden, we refer to the material that lies above an area that lends itself to economical exploitation, such as rock, soil, and ecosystem that lies above a coal seam. The overburden is usually dumped into the nearby valleys (what is known as "valley fills") destroying vegetation, wildlife, and naturals steam.
Pollution of the water causes diseases and deaths among the inhabitants of the mining regions and the presence of those businesses make them more vulnerable to other kinds of dangerous accidents directly related to washing and transportation of coal.
Coal companies can do that because they have money and power, but also because they provide a big part of the jobs in the area.
And when it comes to mining jobs, the book also highlights another important issue for the people dedicated to the activity: Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis.
CWP, also known as black lung disease, is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Inhaled coal dust progressively builds up in the lungs and leads to inflammation, fibrosis, and in worse cases, necrosis.
Legally, when a miner has worked for ten years and can prove that he has the disease, he can get an economical compensation that allows him to live comfortably (Or at least, be transfer to a job with lower exposure without loss of pay)
In many cases, the company manipulates the system to deny those requests, and the miner has no choice but to keep working at the expense of his health.
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Samantha has to handle the case of a coal worker who has been trying to get compensation for years. One of the characters' father died from CWP, too. Those stories help us see the suffering of those affected by the disease, and the lack of protection they get from the justice system.
The information that you find in the novel is very complete, and as far as I could investigate, completely accurate. It seems that Grisham made a thorough research to write it.
“Their lawyers exploit the weaknesses in the system, and their doctors search for ways to blame the condition on anything but black lung. It’s no surprise that only about 5 percent of the miners who have black lung get any benefits. So many legitimate claims are denied, and many miners are too discouraged to pursue their claims.”
— John Grisham
But putting coal business aside for a moment, if we want to analyze this work from a literary point of view, it does not disappoint: Another good Grisham thriller.
Law and justice have important roles in the plot (You will probably learn a few things while reading) but the information is given in a way that makes it interesting and entertaining. Mystery and uncertainty are always present, making it difficult to get bored. I have read it several times since I have it, and is one of those books that never tired me.
The characters are well defined, and they experience development in their professional and personal lives throughout the novel.
The protagonist is up to the circumstances. At the beginning of the story, she is worried about losing her career perspectives, and her economical security. She is desperate to climb to the top and be a partner in an important law firm, so she agrees to interminable hours of work and some mistreatments, seeing it as a fair price to pay for the future she dreams of.
But her job in the legal aid clinic shows her that she can use what she knows differently. Her clients are people of no resources, and the help she can give them is invaluable for them.
So, even though it lacks the glamour and pays of her former job, she finds herself enjoying it, and feeling for the first time that she is making a difference.
Through her journey, we get in touch with many cases that have little to do with coal: Domestic violence, debt collection, estate succession are just a few of them. This allows us to see how lawyers work, and the twists and turns of the system.
Donovan Gray is another person that shapes the story. Reckless and mysterious, he is decided to make the coal companies pay for their actions, and willing to go to the last consequences to defeat them. He knows that companies do not play fair, so he does not see any harm in rising to the challenge. The line between legal and illegal is a thin one, and knowing how to keep your balance makes all the difference.
If you have read some (or all) of Grisham's previous works, you will probably enjoy this one a great deal. But I recommend it to thriller lovers in general.
When a book cannot only entertain, but also inform and teach us about subjects that deserve more attention, it is a very remarkable thing. That is why I think Gray Mountain is a novel that deserves to be read.
© 2021 Literarycreature
MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 19, 2021:
John Grisham is a fine writer. You have written an excellent review of his book Gray Mountain