The economy is in free fall. Lehman Bros. is no more. Private homes and commercial properties are going into foreclosure. Loan money has dried up. Jobs are scarce. A large law firm specializing in real estate deals is coming apart at the seams, tossing lawyers out without any preamble, without any severance, in order to try to save the firm’s partners and their remaining assets and to prevent their clients from fleeing. Lawyers, once on top of the world, albeit overworked with excessively long work hours, are being escorted out of their offices like criminals.
Samantha was one of those lawyers. A product of good schools, she was right on track for great success until the financial meltdown hit. Her law office offered her only one option. If she worked as an unpaid intern, volunteering for a year while on what they called a furlough, she could keep her health insurance and possibly get her old job back if things got better, at years end. However, even free internships were hard to come by since there were too many lawyers out there looking for a job, paid or unpaid. Her dad offered her a job, but his checkered past in the legal field turned her off, and she refused it. Her mother worked for the Federal Government in the Justice Department and like all Federal employees, her job was secure. The economy’s crisis did not affect her and her view of it was unrealistic.
After many unsuccessful attempts to secure an unpaid internship, she finally got a call to go for an interview in Brady, Virginia, near the Appalachia region, to work for the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic. A woman named Mattie Wyatt runs the office. On her way to this rural area of Vermont, she was pulled over by a cop, arrested for speeding and hauled off to jail. Before she gets to a cell, she is rescued by a lawyer, Donovan Gray, who just happens to be Mattie Wyatt’s nephew. He explains that Romey, the quasi cop, is mentally unstable, has no power to arrest her, and so she is free. She is astonished that he had not been arrested for kidnapping and impersonating an officer. Apparently he has friends in high places. His cousin is the sheriff. She is beginning to learn the lay of the land in small towns.
Coal and Crystal Methamphetamines apparently are the major businesses in the area. Donovan sues the coal companies, and his aunt rescues those in need of free legal services. While Donovan is sometimes reckless, his aunt Mattie is cautious and careful. Mattie offers Samantha the job, she takes it, and soon, she and Donovan develop a kind of friendship, although she does not want to be involved in his law firm and refuses to work for him on the side. He encourages her not to leave town, but to stick around, because it is really a nice place, and he knows she will love Mattie and like the work too. However, it will be quite a change from her Manhattan lifestyle.
The story feels a bit contrived. Samantha’s father and Donovan, coincidentally, both bend the rules of law as they fight big corporations. The big corporations, (airlines are Samantha’s father’s area of expertise and coal is Donovan’s), of course, are the evil doers. The coal industry is portrayed as scheming and manipulative as it willfully, knowingly hides the fact that the industry is endangering the environment and thus the lives of the miners simply because it is cheaper to hide their wrongdoing than own up to it. They consider human lives to be less worthwhile assets than their bankrolls and their reputation which they falsely uphold.
Samantha’s father, Marshall, went after the airline industry with their deep pockets, because of their unethical practices, but in the process, he got himself into deep trouble. Donovan has suffered personally because of the unscrupulous practices of the coal corporations and wants to bring them to justice, but he thinks nothing of being unscrupulous as well, in order to collect evidence. He, too, will get into deep trouble in the process. His brother, Jeff, works with him, as well as an assortment of other odd characters. Donovan is the good, “bad” guy, though, and the coal industry is the villain. Even Marshall’s criminal taint gets fainter when you realize he is performing a service, of sorts, to help those in need of legal advice and support they couldn’t otherwise afford. He helps raise capital to provide groups of lawyers to handle cases that would otherwise not be financially viable to represent. Miners get black lung disease and although they are entitled to benefits, the industry hires powerful and influential lawyers to appeal the decisions handed down when in the favor of the victims. He miners don’t have the wherewithal to fight back. They have no money and really can’t fight back without people like Marshall and Donovan and Donovan’s aunt Mattie to help them. The two sides of the law are contrasted in the book. Some lawyers represent the villains and some represent those injured by them. By the time some cases are solved, the victims are dead.
Progressives will really like this book because blame is squarely placed on big business and monster law firms with nothing to lose but money of which they have plenty. Environmentalists will hail the effort to stop the coal industry from polluting water and abandoning workers they have willfully harmed. Republicans are blamed for the laws that favor business and disfavor and abuse the little guy because the “republicans like coal” and big corporations. They are perceived as being in cahoots with the coal people; whether or not it is a partisan or bipartisan issue is immaterial. The FBI is portrayed as a bureau gone wild with no checks and balances unless they come from higher up, from someone in the government with influence. Corruption, in one form or another, seems to be an acceptable way of life, in most places.
The book is easy to read, great for a beach or day of mindlessness. It does not leave you on the edge of your seat, however, eager to keep reading. There is no real build up of tension. I did not find the characters to be very plausible. I felt no attachment to any of them. They behaved unrealistically and the dialogue was weak and shallow. There were no real relationships to become involved in, and the story seemed to skirt around the edges, never getting too deeply developed. Samantha was the most developed character and she seemed very superficial with values that I could not pin down. She seemed more interested in herself than anything else. Actually, most of the characters seemed driven only by personal needs. Donovan seemed headstrong and untethered to the real rules of engagement as he fought his legal battles. His brother Jeff seemed to be a loose cannon who worshiped Donovan and would do anything for him. Mattie, their aunt, was the most stable character as she seemed to have a genuine purpose in life. While Samantha and Donovan seemed to be driven by personal goals, Mattie seemed to be selfless, putting her own needs last. Donovan and Mattie seemed almost like polar opposites, one reckless, the other cautious, but both seemed driven by a desire for justice and a need to help the little guy who was powerless.
I am already awaiting the made for TV movie or serialized weekly episode, since the book leaves you hanging, wondering about the outcome of the cases that Samantha is working on, wondering if she will remain in Appalachia working to stop the coal industry from abusing the miners and their families, or if she will return to the world of mega corporations and law firms, wondering if she will have romance in her life and with whom, wondering if the thugs will fight back and put her in danger, wondering if she will pursue a career in trial law, handling domestic disputes, wills, and the detritus of everyday life.