‘Gray Mountain’ by John Grisham: Wonderful legal drama in Virginia coal country


Rating: 5 stars

John Grisham reliably writes exciting legal thrillers. “Gray Mountain” will make you feel many emotions: anger, passion, admiration, and maybe even the desire to go to the Appalachia mountains to take a hike in its natural beauty. Just stay away from the coal mines.

In Virginia, coal is king. And huge corporate coal companies rape the beauty of the mountains to extract the valuable coal. The resulting destruction fills previously lovely valleys with timber and detretis from the removal of the mountaintop, fills ponds and holding containers with huge lakes of toxic sludge, and contaminates water tables with toxic chemicals.

The damage to the bodies of those who labor in the mines is just as horrifying. Miners die after a few decades in the mines of black lung disease and many of their family members die from cancer — according to Grisham, the rate of death from cancer in Virginia is higher than in other parts of the country.

The story (on Grisham’s website): The Great Recession of 2008 left many young professionals out of work. Promising careers were suddenly ended as banks, hedge funds, and law firms engaged in mass lay-offs and brutal belt tightening.

Samantha Kofer was a third year associate at Scully & Pershing, New York City’s largest law firm. Two weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, she lost her job, her security, and her future.

A week later she was working as an unpaid intern in a legal aid clinic deep in small town Appalachia. There, for the first time in her career, she was confronted with real clients with real problems.

She also stumbled across secrets that should have remained buried deep in the mountains forever.

Samantha Kofer is not a perfect protagonist. But then, no one wants to read about someone perfect — a few flaws make everyone more interesting. Grisham makes her a real person with divorced parents. Her parents are not perfect parents, either. Her father got too greedy as a high-flying litigator and ended up in jail; her mother is a lawyer at the Department of Justice and still bitter about not getting a fair share of the money during the divorce. Samantha is caught between them.

Her father is disappointed when after graduating from a prestigious law school, she chooses to work for one of the biggest law firms in New York in real estate. Samantha spends her days proofing huge stacks of documents and getting yelled at by self-important wealthy real estate moguls.

All that changes with the recession. The firm lets many of its associates go with the charge to work for a year at a non-profit, basically as an intern and for no pay, and then perhaps be recalled to the firm to work. In the meantime, their health insurance will be paid for.

Samantha ends up at a small free legal clinic in rural Virginia. There she encounters all kinds of quirky characters — from lawyers to litigators and coal miners to thugs.

The story is gripping. The anger that the injustice delivered to those who work in the mines will engender is real. It’s the anger that many feel against huge corporate organizations who don’t care about the people who get trampled in the corporation’s quest for more and more profit. Lung disease? Stall long enough and the miner will die. Polluted water supply? Cheaper to pay a few million in judgments than hundreds of millions in cleaning up the environment or changing the way that coal is mined.

New to Grisham? This book will have you hooked. Grisham fan? You won’t be disappointed.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Doubleday for review purposes.