One day, Samantha Kofer is a promising young lawyer at the Wall Street firm of Scully & Pershing, making $180,000 a year and looking forward to a partnership. The next day, she is out. The financial world is crumbling (Lehman Brothers had folded just 10 days before) and the firm is making major cuts in staff. They will be "furloughed," work a year for a pro bono law firm with no salary, and if the economy recovers, be hired back a year later. Maybe.
She hates her job, but it is safe and allows her to live comfortably in New York, and while she is devastated by being fired, she finally decides to see what nonprofits have to offer. The first firms she calls have already taken on an intern, but she is encouraged by Mattie Wyatt and her Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Va. They operate from an abandoned hardware store in a town of 2,000 people, providing free legal advice to low income clients. Most of them have some beef with the biggest employers in Appalachia -- the coal companies.
Mattie takes Samantha on and finds her a place to stay and a chance to do real legal work in a courtroom, not just research and reading contracts. She meets Mattie's nephew, Donovan Gray, a lawyer who makes a shaky living suing coal companies. He has been threatened many times and carries a gun. Most of these companies are engaged in strip mining, and in Brady, that means "mountaintop removal."
After buying a permit to strip-mine, the company clear-cuts the forest, bulldozes the land and blasts away the rock that covers the coal. They then break up the coal seams, load the coal into trucks and move on to the next site, leaving the mountain bare. On top of that, they wash the coal, creating a black sludge that is dumped into "slurry ponds." The pond eventually breaks and the sludge runs down the mountain, destroying homes and schools in its path.
Donovan is devoted to harassing them, which is why he has to carry a gun. He has had many tragedies in his life. His mother committed suicide when he was 16 and his father disappeared, but not before selling mining rights to the family land on Gray Mountain to Vayden Coal. Donovan and his younger brother, Jeff, were raised by other family members. He grows up, gets married and has children, but his wife can't stand the violence and threats against him, and leaves him.
Samantha is attracted to Donovan, but his marriage keeps her from getting involved. She does get involved with Jeff, but he takes risks that frighten her. His brother has stolen some documents that could threaten the coal interests, and then suddenly, he is dead in a plane crash. Jeff thinks his plane was tampered with -- that he was murdered and, despite the dangers, sets put to prove it.
Jeff begins to involve Samantha in his vendetta against the industry, and the other job offers she has received begin to look a lot more attractive. Her father has been disbarred, but he runs a firm of disbarred lawyers who specialize in buying into big lawsuits and taking a share of the profit. It is legal, but makes her uncomfortable. Her old boss at Scully and Pershing is starting his own firm and makes her a generous offer, but many people want Samantha to stay in Brady. She is still pondering her choices when Jeff talks her into helping him in what is clearly an enterprise that could cost them their freedom and quite possibly their lives.
"Gray Mountain" starts like a typical John Grisham novel and shot to the top of the best-seller list almost immediately. I've read most of his 30-plus books and this is one of the weakest. He has done a great deal of research into the way these big companies operate and the tactics they use, so much that the last part of the novel reads like a report. I have no desire to defend these firms, which may be just as malevolent as he claims they are, but he seems more interested in condemning them than telling a story. By the time he's made his case, he's lost me.
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