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Book Review: Rock Bottom by Erin Brockovich, with CJ Lyons

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Most of us know Erin Brockovich from the movie of the same name, starring Julia Roberts. And most of us know her as the feisty advocate for environmental justice, who helped settle cases against, among others, PG&E for polluting the town of Hinkley, California’s water supply by leaking toxic Chromium 6 into the ground water. Brockovich broke into the world of media with the Lifetime series, Final Justice With Erin Brockovich, which she hosted for three seasons. Then, in 2001, there followed a non-fiction book, Take It From Me: Life’s a Struggle But You Can Win. Now, she’s entering the world of fiction with Rock Bottom, written with CJ Lyons.

Touted as the first of a series of suspense novels about an environmental crusader, the story follows AJ Palladino as she journeys back to her West Virginia hometown after a traumatic incident. It’s only the latest difficulty she’s faced holding onto a job. So, whether out of desperation or a desire to start over again, AJ, a single mother, packs herself and David, her 10-year old wheelchair-bound son, into her car and heads for “Scotia, Population 867,” deep in the heart of West Virginia coal country. (p. 4)

Unresolved tensions, the roots of which surface only much later in the story, make her unwelcome at her parents’ house, so she hightails it to Gram Flora’s, where she finds an open door. Soon after she gets acclimated, AJ discovers that Zachary Hardy, the lawyer whom she’s agreed to work for, has just died.

At Hardy’s funeral, AJ meets his daughter, Elizabeth. Present at the memorial service, too, is Cole Masterson, son of the town’s coal company scion, who also happens to be the father of AJ’s son, a child he is still unaware was even born. (Ten years earlier, AJ had had a near-death experience when her car careened off the highway and into the water, nearly drowning herself. Rumors circulated it was an attempted suicide.)

Completing the cast of characters at the center of this gnarled, somewhat contrived, occasionally overwritten and overwrought story are Cole’s wife, Waverly, a group of radical environmental activists known as “The Ladies,” and their media-hungry ring leader, Yancey, along with a several more minor characters.

But what finally sets the action earnestly in motion is the allegation a reporter makes based on an anonymous tip she’s received: Zachary Hardy didn’t die of a heart attack; he was murdered. When Elisabeth herself receives a threatening message AJ decides to convince Elizabeth to take on whatever case her father was tracking and, with AJ’s help, get to the bottom of the emerging mystery.

But what exactly had Hardy uncovered? Turns out the Masterson Mining Company had been buying up land for several years and rolling out a rapid-fire way to extract coal — mountaintop removal — a labor-saving way to get mineral resources out faster, but at extraordinary human and environmental cost. And to complicate the story, it seems Cole Masterson’s been put in charge of the job. Except that nothing is really as it seems.

Ever the intrepid crusader, AJ is determined to get to the bottom of what is surely a disaster waiting to happen. As AJ tries to uncover the truth, the investigation becomes even more complicated and the story gets mired in dramas both personal and environmental. In fact, the plot has so many twists the accumulation of narrative turns eventually gave this reader whiplash.

Can AJ tell Cole about David, his son? How will Cole react? How will David take to having a father being part of a business apparently destroying the environment? What’s causing the ground water pollution? And who? What’s the truth about Yancey’s ladies? Why are AJ’s parents so cold to her and her son? Was Zachary murdered? And, by the way, what really happened to AJ ten years ago?

It takes a lot of patience to follow the trail of toxaphene poisoning AJ discovers back to its source. She finally solves the mystery of who lies behind the effort to put coal-mining profits before everything else. It’s a solution, but not an entirely satisfying one. And maybe that’s because the motivation of almost every character in this story hasn’t been plumbed deeply enough to make the climax of the story, and some of the byways we are expected to travel to get to it, anything more than a little plausible. But perhaps now that Brockovich has gotten this hodge-podge of a back story out of the way she can concentrate in the coming sequel on developing her craft.

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