Review: “Gray Mountain” by John Grisham

“She loved Manhattan and could not imagine living anywhere else, but her world was upside down now, and, well, there was nothing certain in her future.”

About the Book

Cover Art: "Gray Mountain" by John Grisham
“Gray Mountain” by John Grisham

Twenty-nine year old Samantha Kofer is an associate at a huge New York law firm. She works 100 hours per week doing grunt work that she hates, but she’s earning $180,000 a year and is on track to be a partner by the age of 35, raking in millions. She has an apartment she shares with an associate from another firm and is content with the lifestyle her income affords her, even if she doesn’t have much free time to enjoy it.

When readers meet Samantha, it’s September 2008 and day ten of the Lehman Brothers crash. Law firms in New York City are in a panic and shedding associates quicker than an Eskimo sheds clothes in the desert. Samantha’s just one of the many associates turned out onto the street, laid off in a city that now offers no prospects of another job. She only has one consolation. If she will agree to intern for a nonprofit agency for a year, she can keep her health benefits and have a chance of being rehired by her firm if and when there is a rebound. Samantha bulks at the idea of working for free for an entire year, but soon accepts an internship at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, right smack dab in the middle of Appalachia.

Samantha’s boss at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic is Mattie Wyatt, who has kept the clinic running for twenty-six years. Her job at the clinic is to provide legal services to those who come in for help, all of whom are too poor to be able to afford a lawyer on their own. She deals with a variety of cases from an abused wife who wants to escape her abusive, drug dealing husband; an elderly lady who needs Samantha to draft her will; and a man who is dying of black-lung disease and seeks compensation from his employer.

Big Coal is corrupt, and Samantha learns firsthand just how corrupt from her clients, Mattie, and Mattie’s nephew, attorney Donovan Gray. The mining companies are not held  accountable for their actions no matter who or what they hurt. Doctors, lawyers, and politicians testify in favor of Big Coal to protect companies from being forced to compensate employees who suffer from black-lung. Regulations are overlooked in favor of profit, even when two children lose their lives as a result.

Whereas Mattie and Samantha defend the little people whose lives have been destroyed because of Big Coal, Donovan wages a one-man crusade against the Big Coal companies, a crusade that’s sure to win him plenty of high powered enemies. The two big cases he is working on involve strip mining, or the process of removing the top of mountains to mine the seams of coal instead of digging for it. It’s cheaper for coal companies, but it’s deadly to all that lives below the mountain, such as wildlife, streams, and human beings. As the story unfolds, a murder occurs. Samantha must decide if she wants to retreat back home to New York City or stay and fight for the people who need her most.

My Review

Many of Grisham’s novels deal with legal and political issues, such as insurance fraud, homelessness, and capital punishment. Grisham as a writer has a certain magic about him, one that allows him to bring serious topics into his books and make readers care about them. The man can create activists out of couch potatoes just by telling a fictional tale. He has done that again with “Gray Mountain”. The story he tells of Big Coal and strip mining will grab your interest, even if neither of those topics have interested you in the past. You’ll turn the pages and keep reading, wanting to know what happens as you begin to hate Big Coal as much as Mattie, Samantha, and Donovan Gray. When you’re finished, you’ll Google strip mining because — well, Grisham is just that good.

Truth be told, compared to his other novels, the characters in “Gray Mountain” were flimsy cardboard cutouts. We expect vivid characters as much as we expect fascinating storylines from Grisham, and he just doesn’t quite deliver this time. But I’m not sure that even matters. Gray’s Mountain is not thin in the pages at all, and I finished it in less than two days. It’s a great book. Great story. Great writing. Grisham gets the job done again. Four stars.

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