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Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Book Review)
What A Conundrum!
Samantha Kofer is a rising star at Big Law in the glamorous city of Manhattan in 2008. She works in the real estate section along with a multitude of attorneys. Her job entails reviewing contracts and corporate paperwork for clients who seek to build sumptuous skyscrapers. She has yet to see the inside of a courtroom but that is how she prefers it-a life without conflict and ugliness. Her work is boring but she doggedly pursues 80+ hour weeks to earn her high salary and for the privilege of living in Manhattan. Her ultimate goal is to become partner and be rewarded for her years of hard work with multiple paralegals, secretaries, huge bonuses and maybe even a well deserved vacation. For it is for the the prestige of Big Law is why she attended Ivy League colleges. She is following the script of disciplined work ethic which should always have as its just reward that being commensurate to the measure of her dedication. Her mother is a high ranking attorney general at the DOJ and her father made his fortune in aviation plaintiffs' work and she aspires to the same success they enjoy.
Unfortunately, for Samantha, the 2008 Great Recession hits her law firm hard. Every day there are lay offs and truthful rumors of more lay offs to come. Samantha hunkers down at her desk, working even longer hours in the hopes that the partners will consider her too indispensable for termination. But privilege never lasts for many, including for Ms. Kofer and she receives the bad news from her boss, Andy, along with a number of other associates. Samantha glances with irony at Andy's desk collection of replicas of skyscrapers which the firm had helped their clients build. Skyscrapers which have been emptied of workers now pounding the streets, jobless, stunned by the recession.
However, Samantha, along with the other terminated associates, receives an unusual offer. If they agree to intern, without pay, at a non-profit law firm for one year, then they will be allowed to keep their health benefits for that year and they will be able to return to their former jobs, if the economy improves. Samantha cannot conceive of such a drop in her lifestyle but knowing full well of the plethora of lawyers and financiers now working as waiters or selling shoes, the offer does have promise especially if she can retain her health benefits. Her father does offer her a job as legal consultant in his line of business which involves financing promising litigation cases. She wisely turns down that offer remembering her father's prior imprisonment and disbarrment. Thus, she only has two choices: remain in glamorous Manhattan, hoping to somehow avoid the fates of her under-employed city mates or accept the internship with a slim hope of a return to Big Law within the year.
Figuring she has time to review her options because, after all, she would be working as an unpaid intern, she reviews the list of non-profits sent to her by human resources. They all look dreadful to her eyes, all located in cities which in her mind are likely just making the turn around from the Dark Ages. To her shock, the internships she applies to have already been filled. She is further advised by human resources that she needs to move fast as the pro-bono law firms are being inundated with candidates and spots are filling fast. She half-heartedly applies at a legal aid clinic in Brady, Virginia. She is advised by Mattie, an attorney who runs the clinic, that another lawyer has already inquired about the position and that she will hire whoever gets to her office first. Samantha gets her affairs in order and high tails it to Brady, Virginia.
Coal Strip Mining of Mountain
Samantha Gets a Quick Taste of the Gritty Life
Samantha's first drive to Brady is not a pleasant one. On her way to the interview, she is stopped by a deputy who accuses her of all sorts of nefarious traffic violations and doesn't cotton to the fact that she's a Yankee. Romey, the so called deputy, takes her to the local precinct where charges are promptly dismissed against poor Samantha because of Romey's mental illness. Romey is just one of the town's characters who is allowed to pretend at being deputy because his uncle is a sheriff and Romey is considered harmless despite his penchant of shooting his pistol into the air.
Donovan is the name of the lawyer who with chivalry rescues Samantha from Romey's clutches and happens to be Mattie's nephew, the head honco of the legal aid clinic. Donovan is one intense lawyer whose sole obsession is retaliating against the damages the coal companies have enacted upon Brady and the surrounding areas. There are plenty of cases to keep the Brady lawyers busy, including black lung cases, contaminated water, destruction of property, etc. No one drinks from the local tap water. Soda is their favorite drink. Donovan's history is a particularly tragic one. His father sold Gray Mountain, a family property, to a coal company who promised grand compensation. Little of that came the family's way and the mountain was utterly destroyed through the strip mining for coal. The destruction of the mountain segued into further tragic events for the family which influenced Donovan's desire to go after the coal companies. It's a dangerous business for him so he's an observant man who travels with a pistol. Additionally, he plays just as dirty legally as the coal companies do. A good portion of the book deals with documentation which Donovan may have obtained illegally proving that one of the coal companies knew that it would be contaminating the town creeks but figured that the profits would outweight the costs of future litigation.
The Hard Luck Residents of Brady
Samantha is initiated into a quick introduction of a multitude of new clients, all in desperate help of legal counsel. Some of these clients find themselves in precarious situations through their own choices but Grisham ably points out, through their circumstances, how much life is about opportunity as it is about choices. For if all one knows is one set of opportunities such as poverty and the mendacities of a small town, then choices are irrelevant without any further frame of reference.
Samantha's first client is a desperate woman married to an abusive man who sells meth. The woman shows at the clinic with bruises on her face and terrified of her abusive husband. He has been placed in jail but will soon be bonded out but she wants out of her marriage immediately. Naïve Samantha does all she can for the lady, drafts divorce documents, a temporary restraining order and manages to convince the judge to keep the husband a few more days in jail so that his scared wife can have the chance to leave town before he is relesed. A few days later, Samantha is shocked to discover that her work was for naught. The wife exhibits a complete change of heart toward her abusive husband and asks that divorce proceedings be terminated as well as the restraining order as they have resolved their differences. A few days later, Samantha encounters them looking sallow and thin. She correctly assumes that their co-dependency is based on their mutual addiction and sale of meth.
Another client, Francine Crump, is more well off financially and rational and asks Samantha to draft what Samantha considers to be a simple will in which Ms. Crump decides to leave her land to her neighbor, rather than to her five children who she believes will sell the land to the coal companies who will destroy it. She bequeaths her property to her neighbor, believing the neighbor will ensure that the land will remain outside the clutches of the coal companies. The drafting of this will returns to haunt Samantha throughout the novel.
She also represents a very sickly black lung client whose employer, a coal company, has been challenging his request for disabilty for years. There are other clients she represents, with the help of Donovan, who have cancer due to the contamination of the water supply by the coal companies. The sludge is easily visible by the residents and the regulatory companies are useless in forcing the coal companies to comply with safety standards. The contamination of the creeks is closely related to the secretive documents obtained by Donovan and successful litigation depends on convincing other prestigious lawyers with deep pockets to help Donovan sue the companies and for Samantha's father's firm to finance the litigatation required to sue the coal companies. This potential litigation has unanticipated twists and turns which will keep the reader riveted to the novel. The lives and travails of the clients also turn this novel into a very absorbing one and it reads almost like a documentary more than like a book of fiction.
The Lure of Manhattan and Big Law
Samantha Makes Her Decision
Samantha has had quite a year in Brady, Virginia. Not only was she given the opportunity to help needy, impoverished people but she also learned to overcome her fears, such as that of litigation, and just jump into the fray, not worrying about failure. She gained friendships with people who had no ulterior motives, who were merely interested in her as a person and wished to see her succeed. Most importantly, her time in Brady resulted in a sea change in her values. The work she did in Brady resulted in her re-assessing her priorities and taking a closer look at her purpose in life, at what kind of spot she needs to fill in her little part of the world. She does have choices to make at the end of the novel. However, the novel is not a simplistic story about a Big Law intern doing good. The value in this novel and the reason for my unabashed recommendation is because it causes the reader to take stock of their own values, to prioritize what they consider to be important to them when they wake up each morning, and to consider the kind of contribution they want to make in their world. Ultimately, this novel is not about Samantha Kofer, Big Law and Big Coal but how the choices we make in our lives and the courage in how we live our lives can cause a positive leap to our self-esteem and how we can create the best lives for ourselves and for others.