John Grisham

Gray Mountain

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Gray Mountain Summary

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Gray Mountain is the 2014 legal thriller novel written by bestselling author John Grisham. Set in New York and Virginia in 2008 following the financial crisis of the Great Recession, the story centers on Samantha Kofer, a gifted young lawyer working on Wall Street. When Samantha is “furloughed” from her position after the collapse of The Lehman Brothers investment bank, she heads to a small town in Appalachian Virginia, where she gets embroiled in a legal battle between a local community and a Big Coal company. The deeper Samantha gets in the case, the deadlier the consequences prove to be. Thematically, the book explores issues of environmentalism, big business ethics, corporate pollution, corruption and cover-ups, coal mining, financial regulation and economic recession. Gray Mountain reached #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List, and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR.

The story revolves around 29-year old Samantha Kofer, a legal upstart working for the Wall Street firm Scully & Pershing in 2008. Despite loathing her job’s long hours and the lack of social life it affords, Samantha has a cushy six-figure position that allows her to live comfortably in Manhattan. But due to the sudden collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, triggering the financial meltdown, Samantha faces ouster. Samantha is told that she and several thousand other employees are to be “furloughed”, meaning she has the option of doing charity work for one year without pay. If she succeeds, she’ll retain her health benefits and just might get her old job back. Devastated at first, Samantha applies for employment at 10 different nonprofits, but has zero luck.

Samantha is eventually recruited by Mattie Wyatt, executive director of the Mountain Legal Aide Clinic in Brady, Virginia. Relocated from the Big Apple to the small Appalachian town of 2,200 people, Samantha begins giving pro bono legal advice to low-income clients. Working out of a converted hardware store with Mattie and her junior Lawyer Annette, Samantha soon finds that most of the litigation in Brady involves personal suits against big coal companies. Black Lung disease has claimed more lives than cancer in Brady, which is located in the heart of coal country. After helping Samantha settle in and find a place to stay in a small apartment above Annette’s garage, Mattie offers the young lawyer a chance to do some real courtroom work, as opposed to grueling paperwork in a fancy Wall Street office. Samantha agrees, and begins taking on cases involving personal debit, domestic violence and substance abuse.

Mattie introduces Samantha to her nephew Donovan Gray, a charming but risky trial attorney who makes a volatile living by suing coal companies on behalf of the infirmed citizens of Brady. Donovan ruffles feathers in the coal community. In turn, Donovan is threatened so often by big oil goons that he resorts to mounting a gun on the dashboard of his car for protection. Donovan explains to Samantha the glaring malpractice of the coal companies in Appalachia. These companies perform what is known as strip mining, essentially meaning they carve the top of the mountains in order to easily extract coal. This process destroys the environment, depletes natural resources, and exploits the miners by forcing them to toil until they fall ill. Then the coal companies fire the ill workers without giving them proper benefits. Worse, these companies greedily cut costs and knowingly allow toxic sludge to run off into rivers and streams and contaminate local water supplies. Gray Mountain in the town of Brady, Virginia is the primary place of conflict.

When Donovan pilfers documents that prove a coal giant called Krull Mining had foreknowledge of the water contamination in Brady, he suddenly ends up dead in a mysterious plane crash. Donovan’s brother Jeff, who is not a lawyer, gets involved in the case. Jeff believes Krull had Donovan deliberately murdered in order to keep the incriminating documents from being publicly exposed. With Samantha’s help, Jeff intends on proving the corporate malfeasance of Krull Mining and the subsequent death of his brother. Jeff enlists the help of Donovan’s lawyerly friend Jarrett London, and the two intend to bring the case before a judge in court. Samantha has a brief romantic affair with Jeff along the way. But once the FBI turns its sights on Samantha, she deems Jeff too big a risk and ends their romantic relationship. Still, Samantha agrees to help Jeff continually move the evidence Donovan stole.

The ending of the novel does not resolve the court case. The story concludes with Samantha weighing various employment options. She considers going to work for her father, a disbarred lawyer running a firm of similar former attorneys who profit by buying into high-profile lawsuits. It’s a legal operation, but it morally upsets Samantha too much to take the job. Samantha’s former boss at Scully & Pershing, Andy Grubman, also offers her a position at a new firm he’s founded, but she turns that position down as well. In the end, Samantha decides to stay in Virginia and help the less fortunate fight off big corporate coal interests. Even though it may cost her a career, her freedom and possibly her life, Samantha agrees to remain with Mattie in Brady for at least the next two years. Samantha intends to finish helping Jeff with this landmark case, as well as provide legal aide to all of the clients she met in Brady.

Gray Mountain was named a “superior entertainment” by The Washington Post, as well as one of Grisham’s “best legal dramas” by the Associated Press.