By Michael Shnayerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 321 pp., $25
Court cases thread through Michael Shnayerson’s new book like veins of coal through an Appalachian hillside. In discussing one of them, he observes that that the judge made “a small point, like a caveat buried near the end of a book review.”
So let’s not bury our caveats, the most important one being: “
It will make you angry especially if you’re disturbed by the Bush administration’s radically pro-business approach to energy policy and the environment. Of course, if you’re an admirer and a beneficiary of those policies, Mr. Shnayerson’s evident bias against them will also make you angry.
For while his book is billed as the story of a handful of people in the hills of West Virginia who protested the damage being done by a coal company to the mountains where they and their ancestors had lived, Mr. Shnayerson has turned it into an indictment of government policy, of power-hungry politicians and businesspeople, of bureaucratic inertia, of Wall Street’s obsession with fattening the bottom line, and of the callousness with which the poor have been treated for generations. The people of
He means “blasted away” literally. “
The result was visible and lasting damage to the environment. After the blasting began, one woman “was astonished to see the hollow’s entire animal population come foraging right by her house in the valley: bobcats and bears, squirrels and possums. … When she fed them, they hung around for more, pets whether she wanted them or not.” And environmentalists argued that the burning of coal, however obtained, “was the single greatest cause” of the looming calamities of global warming.
Those who protested mountaintop removal, who argued for laws and regulations, often found themselves outcasts in their own communities, where people who had jobs feared losing them – or that Massey would retaliate against friends and relatives who worked there. The mountain culture is “libertarian,” as Mr. Shnayerson puts it – distrustful of outsiders and collective efforts. And after years of being worn down, they simply doubted that anything could or would be done. As one of the protesters put it, “The way they’ve done it is by dehumanizing us, so that the rest of
Mr. Shnayerson has found an easy villain for his book in Don Blankenship, who would seem on the face of it to be the very emblem of corporate greed, a man who received “roughly $27 million in pay and perks for 2006 – despite a 30 percent decline in the company’s stock for the year.” But Mr. Shnayerson humanizes Blankenship, describing his hardscrabble childhood in the hills he was now blasting away. “