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August 31, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Scotia Widows

Inside Their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coal

Gerald M. Stern

Random House: 146 pp., $20

On MARCH 9, 1976, a main line exploded in the Scotia coal mine in eastern Kentucky. Fifteen men, all in their 20s, died. Two days later, 11 rescuers were killed. A subsequent congressional report cited inadequate self-rescue devices, the lack of safety training, regulatory standards not met and, much worse, the prioritization of "production and profit before the health and safety" of the miners. Gerald Stern is the Washington-based lawyer who represented the "Scotia widows" in a six-year battle against Scotia Coal and its owner, Blue Diamond Coal Co. These are courageous women, warned not to cause trouble by men in their community whose livelihoods still depended on mining. They wanted more than money. They wanted to "show the world what Blue Diamond's recklessness had done to their husbands and children, and to their hopes and dreams." Stern writes of his reluctance to take the case, even though he was the lawyer who sued the Pittston Co. after the 1972 Buffalo Creek mining disaster in West Virginia, in which 125 people, mostly women and children, were killed when a dam burst, releasing 130 million gallons of black coal wastewater and sludge. He writes with great simplicity and clarity about the Scotia case: the gains (a $6-million settlement and an opportunity for the widows to tell executives and the world about the effects of corporate greed) and the losses (one of the widows committed suicide, young families ripped apart). The case might have turned out completely differently if Stern hadn't followed up on a tip that one of the original judges in the case was receiving royalties from a mining company on land he owned. It's a story of courage, beautifully told.

Travel Writing

A Novel

Peter Ferry

Harcourt: 288 pp., $24

This IS one of those fabulously intricate novels in which you never quite know what is true and what is not -- a book that becomes an exercise and exploration of the ubiquitous existence of storytelling in our lives. In other words, a perfect first novel. The narrator, Pete Ferry, teaches high school English and writes travel pieces on the side. To get his students' attention, he tells a story about the night his car traveled astride a beautiful, exotic, naked young woman who drove erratically before crashing into a lamppost and dying. Bit by bit, the real story peels off from the fiction (eerily not the other way around). Ferry, who did nothing to save her, becomes obsessed with the dead woman and with finding out how and why she died. Drugs, psychiatrists, girlfriends and gauzy slices of Mexico make a maze of a novel. Ferry -- storyteller, teacher, author -- succeeds because he does not get caught in his own web. Or does he?

The Grift

A Novel

Debra Ginsberg

Shaye Areheart Books: 340 pp., $23.95

After A fortuneteller reveals to a young Marina Marks that she has "the gift," her dissolute mother immediately puts her to work, like a trained monkey. The girl learns to lie her way through people's lives. But then she starts having real visions of the future. This is a rollicking novel, full of lies and uncontrollable fictions, set in the blank emptiness of San Diego. One caveat: The story gets bogged down here and there by a kind of screenplay-style writing: lurching, light-flickering interludes that dilute its psychological depth.

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