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Book Author: Gardiner Harris

HAZARD by Gardiner Harris: Book Review

“…The (coal) seam was no bigger than thirty inches and often narrowed to twenty-six. Miners here spent their working lives in a space no taller than a coffee table…its operators all lay prone.  Miners had to bring straws with their lunches because there was rarely enough room to tilt a Coke can over their heads.”

The cliche life imitates art is unfortunately too true, for this novel’s story closely parallels the tragedy in a West Virginia coal mine earlier this year.

This first novel by Gardiner Harris has the very dysfunctional Murphy family at its center.  They are third generation miners in Perry County, Kentucky.  Will Murphy is the novel’s protagonist, for hero is too positive a word to describe him.  Will’s father and uncle started mining in a small way, and after the oil crisis in the 1970s the demand for coal increased and so did the family fortunes.  Then Will’s father forced Will’s uncle Elliott out, creating a family rift that never healed.

Years ago Will was responsible for causing an explosion in the family mine; as a result his younger brother died, and Will suffered severe burns over much of his body.  Will has never forgiven himself, so partly to make amends he gave up mining and is now an inspector for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.  Just before the book opens Will’s father died, and the reading of his will gives complete control of the Blue Gem mine to Will’s brother Paul.  As the novel begins, there is an explosion in the Blue Gem in which nine miners drown; the investigation has been given to Will.  Is the official thinking that he won’t find fault with his brother’s mine?

Mining is an incestuous business, with miners, mine owners, and mine inspectors all members of the same families.  The miners are dependent on the mine being open and operating, the owners are dependent on the slack enforcement of safety standards by MSHA to ensure high profits, and the inspectors all have relatives who work or own the mines.  It’s not a good recipe for honest inspections and rigid adherence to safety regulations.

Will is very much a flawed man.  He’s tormented by the accident he caused, and everything he has done since then has been impacted by that event.  His relationship with his mother is cool, his relationship with Paul almost non-existent, his relationships with his superiors in MSHA difficult because they want to close the case, his relationship with his wife and teenage daughter problematic because his wife has moved out of their home so their daughter can attend a different high school and have the chance to win a basketball scholarship.

There’s so much going on that several times Will is ready to give up the investigation, but each time something comes up to cause him to try to make sense of why the miners were cutting in an old mine area which shouldn’t have contained water but did.

Harris uses his background as an investigative reporter in coal mining Kentucky to bring to life a community where there’s nothing else but mines, no other way to earn a living.  It’s all most people in the area know, and their lives have been so restricted for generations that it’s almost impossible for them to think about leaving and finding another way of life.  Will Murphy has managed to leave the mine, but the mine hasn’t left him.

You can read more about Gardiner Harris at this web site.