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Cannonball Read IV: A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr

By leuce7 | Books | May 2, 2012 |

By leuce7 | Books | May 2, 2012 |

There’s a reason I read a lot of genre fiction, mostly mystery and romance. As bad at things might get in those genres, there’s usually a good guy triumphing over the bad guy at the end, a new, loving partnership beginning, or some other thing that tells me there is hope in the world, despite challenges and obstacles.

Non-fiction doesn’t give me that. The real world, while there may be hope in it, and while I am an optimist by nature and do look for the silver lining and all that crap, is not, once everything is boiled down, a fair place. Some people are lucky, some are unlucky; some work hard and get screwed, some work hard and are rewarded, some don’t have to work at all and are blessed, or don’t work and reap what they (didn’t) sow. But sometimes things like talent, hard work, passion, and perseverance, don’t net an end result that brings the satisfaction, in the end, that I crave and get with the happily-ever-afters and good-triumphing-over-evil I find in romance and mystery fiction.

And that brings me to the book, A Civil Action. It is the tale of a case that began in a town north of Boston, where the two evil companies polluted the groundwater that then led to the illnesses and some deaths of the townspeople who drank the water. Were this fiction, the evil companies would be summarily punished, the good guys would triumph and become stronger people for it, and the book (if it were my type of book) would leave me with a strong sense of satisfaction and justice in the world.

Not quite.

Instead, the tale unfolds slowly, showing the struggles and heartbreak of the families who suffer the illnesses and death, how their cases slowly come to the attention of personal injury lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann (a real character, all right) and the absolutely draining process of bring the case to trial and seeing it through. The health issues started in the late 70′s and early 80′s; the last ruling on the case came in 1990 (not counting motions for appeal [denied] filed afterwards). The pace of the book picks up with the action, everything snowballing until you actually feel the drain of the hectic pace just from reading it; I can’t imagine actually living it. The author does a very good job at keeping what is an extremely complicated case fairly clear, and paints an extremely vivid picture of the struggles and costs of bringing this case to trial, along with a great portrait of people driven sometimes by good motives, and sometimes by bad, but always putting forth the best efforts they can manage to get to where they feel they need to be.

I picked this book up because I’m starting my second semester of law school, and our Civil Procedure professor recommended it as a glimpse of Civ Pro in action. After reading it, I think I would be more likely to describe it as the excruciating side of the civil justice system in action. Some of the rulings, especially toward the end of the saga, in light of other discoveries and concurrent results from the Environmental Protection Agency, who did successfully sue the two accused companies to pay for the clean-up of the environmental mess they made, are absolutely mind-boggling, and just highlights the fallibility of a system, that, whatever ideals it may aspire to, is still run by very fallible humans.

Nonetheless, despite the absolute astonishment I felt at some points in the reading, I’m not ready to give up hope quite yet. The fact of the matter is, there do exist those people out there willing to give justice a shot, even if the results far miserably short of the mark, and I commend those people for their amazing efforts, and for paving the way for the suckers like me who refuse to give up on the hope that the system, and the world, when trying to weigh out the balance of things, comes out slightly in favor of good, truth, and justice, no matter how much we fight and inhibit it along the way.

For more of leuce7’s reviews, check out her blog, Between Something and Nothing.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.

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