Goodreads Review: The Buffalo Creek Disaster: How the survivors of one of the worst disasters in coal-mining history brought suit against the coal company–and won by Gerald M. Stern

Three Star review, originally posted here on February 9, 2017.

I felt a personal connection with this book because of both my love for the Appalachian Mountains, and the fact that I work in a very similar field (supporting attorneys who protect Americans from major environmental negligence). It is worth reading because it introduces a significant but little-known piece of history that is definitely worth understanding in today’s political climate, where conservative politicians want to do away with government regulations that help prevent these kinds of extremely tragic, greed-driven events. One thing to know going in, that may either deter or entice certain readers, is that this book is not about the actual Buffalo Creek Disaster, but about the legal process of suing the company responsible on behalf of the victims. It’s a pretty classic Lawyer War Stories scenario that I think will definitely appeal to lawyers and law school students, but doesn’t really make for fascinating storytelling to the lay person. At the beginning I didn’t find the lawcentric (yeah, I made that word up) nature of the book to be detracting, but at that point he is meeting with victims and telling their stories. By the end, however, we follow the attorney out into the wastelands of paperwork and dry negotiations. The author himself seems almost bored by the end, suddenly switching to a play-by-play diary of just who called whom when to suggest which settlement number. Technically in the end the good guy wins, but he wins by settlement instead of going to court, which robs the non-lawyer reader from the dramatic courtroom victory, with jurors dramatically condemning the bad guys and townsfolk crying on one another’s shoulders, that we are so used to expecting from legal dramas. There is definite value in reading this underwhelmingly dry recanting of details, because it helps reflect the real world a bit better. We like to think that “the good guys” are fighting against Goliath in dramatic movie-worthy fashion, but often those amongst us doing the most good are not doing so on a public stage with big beautiful speeches. They’re doing it with briefs and documents and cordial deadpan phone calls. I felt a personal connection to this telling of the story because it so directly tells the story of my own career: my day to day job is the most boring thing in the entire world, but the lives we’re affecting, the good we’re doing in the world, is movie-worthy.

In short, if you’re interested in the nuts-and-bolts of what it takes to save the world one legal case at a time, go ahead and pick this up. If you’re looking for a tear-jerker about one of the most infuriating and depressing disasters in modern history, maybe pass this one by.

Sidenote: Maybe it’s just my Kindle copy, but for some reason half the periods were missing from this book and it was driving me bonkers. Why???


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