Book Review: “Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia”
Journalist Chris Hamby’s book is a searing and heartfelt look at the struggles for justice in the West Virginia coalfields.
I’m a son of West Virginia, and I’m the son of a coal miner. So, when I saw the book Soul Full of Coal Dust available as an ARC from NetGalley, I pounced on it. From the first page to the last, I found myself swept up in the story that Christ Hamby, a journalist at The New York Times, was telling. This is a story of the extraordinary men and women of my home state who have had to wage a decades-long war to get the benefits they deserve from an industry hell-bent on exploiting every resource in West Virginia, including its people. In particular, they have struggled to gain compensation for black lung, a terrible lung disorder that is as much a part of coal mining as the hardhat.
Hamby has an instinctive grasp of how to get to the real meat of the story, while also giving the reader the kind of context necessary to understand why this issue is so pressing. We learn, for example, of the truly terrible physical toll that coal mining takes on the bodies of those who work both underground and aboveground, of how the dust from coal causes horrific damage to the lungs of almost anyone who works in that environment. We learn of the ways in which the coal industry and its cronies in both the government and in the medical and legal professions have steadily worked to discredit miners and to do everything in their power to keep from having to pay them the compensation they are owed. We see some of the powers that be that have been especially active in solidifying the industry’s power over the region, including Don Blankenship (who ran his company, Massey Energy, like a feudal fief) and Jackson Kelly (the powerful law firm that frequently represents the coal industry in its attempts to deny benefits.
The real beating heart of the book, however, are the people, the proud men and women of West Virginia, whether native or transplants, who spend so much of their lives trying to do the right thing. These are men like Gary Fox, a coal miner who worked in hazardous conditions so that he could support his wife and daughter, even when doing so put his own health at risk. These are men like the lawyer John Cline, who has devoted his life to fighting for miners and their benefits. Men like this, of course, are part of the broader political situation in West Virginia (and Appalachia more generally), but in Hamby’s capable hands we get an intimate view of these people, seeing them as human beings who are just trying to do what is right. The book is very much a David and Goliath story, and it is men like Gary and John who are the Davids, taking on the behemoths of both the coal industry and their powerful lawyers. They don’t always succeed, but when they do it’s impossible not to feel caught up in the sense of triumph over the forces of corporate greed.
It is, in some important ways, a very difficult book to read, but that’s precisely what makes it so important. It’s very easy these days to mock those in Appalachia — particularly West Virginia — and I’m not entirely innocent of that habit (I have a very complicated relationship with my homeland). However, as Hamby demonstrates, it is definitely true that the coal industry has gone out of its way to make many people in West Virginia utterly dependent on them, only to deny them the very compensation they were promised for literally putting their lives on the line for the company. This has included pulling out all the stops, and it’s very revealing that so few of those involved with supporting the companies’ efforts were willing to speak to Hamby.
Soul Full of Coal Dust thus identifies one of the most puzzling contradictions about Appalachian life, a conundrum that continues to puzzle many outsiders (and many insiders, such as myself). How is it possible that, given everything that they know to be true about the duplicity of the big coal companies, that they would continue to mortgage their bodies and good health to these same employers? The reasons are as complicated as the people of Appalachia, but as Hamby demonstrates it’s in part an issue of pride. For many people in West Virginia, both in the past and in the present, the coal mines have offered a means out of poverty, a way of giving one’s family a middle-class life. This was certainly the case with Gary Fox, and it’s hard not to feel true heartbreak when he ultimately succumbs to black lung, having literally given his life to support his family.
What I truly appreciated about this book was the profound compassion and empathy with which Hamby managed to investigate his subjects. Throughout the book, we get a poignant sense of the quiet strength that is so key to the Appalachian character. It’s precisely this strength that allows regular folks like Gary Fox and John Cline to go up against companies like Massey and law firms like Jackson Kelly and even, as the book makes clear, doctors at Johns Hopkins (some of whom seemed curiously unwilling to acknowledge the existence of black lung in the vast majority of cases that they investigated).
Soul Full of Coal Dust is, ultimately, a story of triumph, in that there have been shifts in policy at the federal level making it easier for miners to get the black lung benefits that they deserve. If the book reminds us of anything, however, it’s that those victories are always precarious, that all it takes is the right administration or the right set of legislators or the right judge, and all of those gains could be lost.
Hopefully my fellow West Virginians will keep that in mind in the next election.