Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Civil Action

A Civil Action – Jonathan Harr

The small town of Woburn seems like an ideal place to raise a family in the 60s and 70s, as many people do. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, as one family learns when their young son dies of leukemia. A small tragedy that could pass unnoticed until another child dies of leukemia. And another, and another, until people begin to speculate about the possibility of a cancer cluster. The likely suspect is the drinking water, which smells foul and tastes worse. The town suspects two production plants of polluting the water source with chemicals and toxic waste. However, the case seems just as toxic and untouchable as the water, until it falls into the hands of Schlichtman, who pursues the case beyond the point of obsession. After pouring years of life and millions of dollars into research, the case finally comes to trial. Although the case seems clear cut, Schlichtman runs into problems in the courtroom as he comes up against hostile witnesses, alternative theories of groundwater movement, and a stubborn judge. As the case drags on, it raises more questions about both the purpose and the process of the justice system. Does it protect the victims, and can it indeed be called a justice system?

“A Civil Action” is a very detailed retelling of the trial process. Based on the true story of a court case in the 80s, it tells the real story of all the effort, strain, and worry that goes into high profile cases. The author doesn’t skip any detail, documenting superstitious wardrobe choices, eating habits, and a whole array of dysfunctional behaviors. This could potentially be a highly compelling legal story, but the author doesn’t seem to be telling a story. He is recounting a trial, and it comes off that way. His descriptions are accurate and they create somewhat dramatic scenes, but overall, he lacks the energy and enthusiasm that should accompany a story. The narration is fine, but it doesn’t flow. The details are precise, but they’re not vivid. The story plods along rhythmically rather than catching the reader in a swirl of interest. Overall, it’s OK.

I wasn’t too thrilled with this book. Actually, I was quite intrigued as I read the summary of it, but once I started reading, I quickly changed my assessment. It was still interesting and I enjoyed learning more about the legal process. I had no idea that there was more to a trial than just the trial – there is also discovery, taking depositions, all kinds of research, briefing, and motions. But unless you are really interested in those things – perhaps if you are a lawyer – it doesn’t make for an easy read. It’s no John Grisham, which I know isn’t a fair comparison, but if you’re looking for an interesting legal read, you’re probably better off sticking with a reputable author with a history of compelling books.

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