71 pages 2 hours read

Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action is a nonfiction account of the legal case between several families in Woburn, Massachusetts, and two corporations, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace.

When the book begins, a young boy named Jimmy Anderson gets sick. His mother, Anne Anderson, believes it is just a cold. Jimmy’s condition rapidly deteriorates, however, and soon he is diagnosed with leukemia. Approximately the first quarter of the book presents the backstory of the Andersons and several other Woburn families whose children are stricken with leukemia. The cases all occur within a relatively small neighborhood, an uncanny coincidence that leads Anne to seek legal representation.

She and the other families with sick children enlist the services of a lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann, who puts together the lawsuit that will try the two corporations for poisoning the groundwater that would spread hazardous chemicals into the water supply that led to the Woburn neighborhood in question. Schlichtmann is an obsessive, odd figure. He believes in a grand destiny for himself, which is what leads him to take the case, a case that few other lawyers would even consider, given the enormity of its size and the difficulty in proving the link between the chemicals and the cluster of leukemia cases.

Although the courtroom drama is compelling, most of the book takes place in the details of the Woburn case, which are shown in minute, sometimes excruciating detail. There are endless motions filed by both sides, innumerable meetings with the judge, constant bickering between the lawyers and their partners, and bottomless financial woes for Schlichtmann’s firm, which does not bring in enough money to finance the case.

Ultimately, the jury exonerates Beatrice Foods and indicts W.R. Grace, but Grace settles with Schlichtmann before the second phase of the trial can begin.

A Civil Action is a detailed and at times difficult book. The case is presented in the clearest manner possible and reflects the procedures and machinations that take place in the development and prosecution of the trial. It is nearly impossible for anyone but the lawyers and the judge to keep up with all of the facts, expert testimony, and tens of thousands of pages of documents, and eventually, even they despair at the limits of their own abilities.

Themes of justice, bureaucracy, obsessiveness, and greed emerge in A Civil Action. It will make readers reexamine what they thought they knew about the American legal system and ask themselves hard questions about the faith they would have in their attorneys and a jury of their peers, should they ever find themselves on trial. The book received the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was adapted into a film in 1998. 

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