... as Chris Hamby makes clear in his lively and arduously researched book, Soul Full of Coal Dust, even those who escape the immediate dangers of toiling underground are subject to years, even decades, of pain, labored breathing, and eventual death ... There are many surprising revelations in Hamby’s book. One is that black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, is undergoing a deadly resurgence in central Appalachia ... Soul Full of Coal Dust may disappoint readers expecting an expansive look into the inner workings of mines ... Administrative hearings and legal motions may not make for pleasurable reading, but they are where the system’s cruelties are laid painfully bare ... Still, with relentless curiosity and empathy, Hamby has reached deep into Appalachia’s coal hills and discovered the bright places where change occurs. Here he has found dramas of heroism, self-sacrifice and determination ... he has performed another public service by portraying the often-forgotten people of coal country as active agents in their own history.
In Soul Full of Coal Dust, Hamby employs dogged investigative work and a deep well of empathy for his subjects to painstakingly bring this private pathos to life ... Hamby is not an elegant or emotional writer, but he does manage to capture the inner turmoil of his subjects as they get sick and realize the coal mining companies and their high-power attorneys are getting the best of them. Mostly, he accomplishes this with a blow-by-blow description of repeated doctor visits and proceedings before administrative law judges ... With thorough reporting, and boundless concern for his subjects, Hamby has created a powerful document of this drama, one that is unfolding, largely unseen, in the hills and valleys of West Virginia.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter shows how coal operators, politicians, lawyers and biased medical 'experts' rigged the system to thwart the spirit if not the letter of congressional reform ... Mr. Hamby’s reporting is...intimate, and...heart-rending. His relationship with the principals transcends that of reporter-source; in most instances, he is a friend and confidant. With profound empathy, he evinces the miners’ suffering and death from breathing coal dust—which, according to one autopsy, makes diseased lungs resemble 'burnt steak.'
Hamby begins Soul Full of Coal Dust by 'marveling' at the industrial sites and the “compelling” people. But what redeems him from the most common pitfalls and mistakes is his persistence ... Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no way to read Hamby’s book without recognizing its damning assessment of the American proclivity to put economic profit over human health and wellbeing ... But on top of it all, this book is a meditation on human resilience ... there’s much to learn from these people and communities—wisdom to gain and solidarity to build.
... a beautifully crafted deep dive into the horrific realities of black lung ... Of course, many people are aware of the environmental damage done in the name of natural resources like coal, but Hamby demonstrates that coal companies have inflicted unspeakable human damage alongside that environmental damage ... Hamby does a magnificent job of engaging readers’ emotions in the way he tells these stories and others, and as some of the stories approach unbearable sadness, he gently steers us back to the scientific and legal grounds upon which his argument depends ... I finished this book more quickly than I expected to, and I certainly cried over it more than I expected to. Perhaps I was more emotionally invested than others, but I hope that Hamby’s writing will make the plight of coal miners and their advocates real and personal for all readers.
It is a story of many setbacks and occasional success, and the detailing of medical reports and legal proceedings conveys a sense of the drawn-out process so many miners face. Hamby’s research is extensive, and his investment in revealing the plight of the miners and their families in the hope of reform is clear.
While documenting how companies like Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, flout rules protecting workers, Soul Full of Coal Dust also documents the perseverance of miners and their advocates in seeking fair treatment from a system stacked against them ... Soul Full of Coal Dust has the legal drama of Grisham, the rigor of top-flight investigative journalism, and the emotional complexity of the most powerful novels. In a world crowded with drive-through hot takes and politically expedient caricatures, Hamby’s patient telling of the stories of John Cline, Gary Fox, and the rest of the people inside and outside of Appalachia working for justice results in a book of great use to all readers genuinely interested in learning how this country works and what has to be done to make it work better. Journalists like Chris Hamby will always be welcome here, at least by the likes of this reviewer.
New York Times reporter Hamby debuts with a harrowing and cinematic account of the resurgence of black lung disease among coal miners in central Appalachia ... Readers will cheer for Cline as he unravels the systematic corporate, medical, and legal malfeasance that prevented Fox and other miners from receiving their rightful benefits, and helps push the federal Labor Department to take action in 2016 to prevent coal companies from continuing to sabotage the claims process. This eloquent and sobering reminder of the human damage caused by the coal industry deserves to be widely read.
Hamby uses ailing miners, their advocates, and the high-powered law firms and coal companies they battled to illustrate his David and Goliath story ... An engrossing read for those interested in social justice.
Hamby’s book is a touch long but full of memorable moments; it sits well in the tradition of advocacy journalism that includes recent books such as Carl Safina’s A Sea in Flames and Karen Piper’s Left in the Dust ... A solid contribution to the literature of resource extraction and its discontents.