Op-Ed

Grisham left out the pepper in his salt-of-the-earth cast of characters

John Grisham's latest novel, Gray Mountain, not only satisfies my thirst for fast-paced mystery, but its southwest Virginia coalfield setting and its thematic central strand — mountaintop removal — are, quite literally, close to my home.

I grew up in Harlan County, Ky., but a fly rock over the real Black Mountain from Grisham's not-too-imaginary Gray Mountain. It is where my paternal family has lived and worked, going back to the 1840s.

My great-grandfather, grandfather, father, three uncles and an older brother put in a combined 200 years — 200 years — as coal miners, all in southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

My people are black — that's right, black coal miners from the Appalachian Mountains.

The men in our family worked for coldhearted coal companies; they wheezed with black lung while cancer took the lives of most of my coalfield relatives.

Today, my relatives and friends who still live in the region worry about the quality of the water. They live and fight daily to end mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Like Grisham's lively characters, they are salt — or is it pepper? — of-the-earth people.

Despite the fact that black people — coal miners — have been in the setting of this Grisham novel from the time of its settlement, the only time he uses the word black in the 368-page climb it takes to get to the top of Gray Mountain is when he ties it to coal workers' pneumoconiosis — black lung.

Grisham, with all due respect, to turn the title of another of your best-selling books: It is Time to Kill the all-white image of Appalachia.

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