...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.
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.