It’s 2008, ten days after the fall of Lehman Brothers, when 29-year-old Samantha Kofer is laid off from her profitable but uninspiring career at a New York law firm. Within days she finds herself traveling the hairpin roads of southwest Virginia to intern with the Mountain Aid Legal Clinic, a nonprofit law firm in the fictional town of Brady, Va., nestled deep in Appalachia’s coal country.
There, while learning to use her legal training to help rural clients struggling with debt, domestic violence and substance abuse, Samantha is soon confronted with the fallout of the region’s dominant industry. A skilled — and charming — trial lawyer introduces her to the environmental devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining, the dangers of careless coal trucks, and criminally negligent mining practices that have deadly consequences for local families. To her horror, she also witnesses the ways that companies can manipulate the law to deny federal black-lung benefits to dying miners.
Amidst all this, the local residents are genuine and welcoming. Samantha lets her guard down and finds a sense of family and even a bit of romance. But after the shocking death of a main character, she finds herself drawn ever more deeply into a threatening, murky struggle against Big Coal and must decide whether to follow the allure of her former big-city lifestyle or to stay in Appalachia and fight alongside her new community.
Fans of John Grisham expect a good-guys-versus-bad-guys legal thriller, and “Gray Mountain” delivers. Readers will find themselves rooting for the locals, and, like Samantha, shocked that our legal and regulatory systems allow the coal industry to get away with such heinous violations.
Though “Gray Mountain” is a work of fiction, the crimes inflicted by the coal companies on nearby communities are based on reality. Grisham toured the area near Whitesburg, Ky., with attorneys from Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit law firm, and also spoke extensively with Dr. Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices, the publisher of The Appalachian Voice.
“Grisham expressed keen interest in understanding and accurately representing the damages that surface mining causes in central Appalachia,” says Wasson. “His novel has exposed readers across the country to these issues, and we hope it will inspire readers to support the fight for justice in these communities.”
At press time, Gray Mountain had spent 14 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list for fiction. — Review by Molly Moore