Mesothelioma Asbestos Mining Novel: A Book Worth Reading
By: Chris Placitella @ Oct 09, 2012
Working in an asbestos mine is definitely dangerous to your health. More than 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-caused diseases: mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. It’s an insidious health risk because the latency period between exposure and diagnosis is 20 to 50 years, making it a silent killer difficult to track.
Life in a northern British Columbia asbestos mining town would seem to provide an ideal locale for a novel aimed at exposing past injustices and promoting social change. Jim Williams’ novel Rock Reject fills the bill and does so in disturbing, haunting fashion.
The novel transports us back to 1974. Grieving the loss of his wife to an unexpected hemorrhage, the central character, Peter Stevens, quits medical school and leaves Toronto for the Stikine region of northern B.C., determined to “find himself” or “prove himself” in a virtual hellhole on the frontier.
Spurning his doctor father’s wishes, he breaks away and hires on as a simple labourer in the “rock reject” section of the asbestos mine. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is the inscription on the sign at the entrance to the noisy, dusty area of the mine where Peter shovels split rock and residue onto a conveyor belt all day long.
Peter’s personal exile takes him to “the end of the goddam road” and it would be hard to imagine a more dangerous or gloomy workplace. The bookish “greenhorn” trades his London Fog overcoat for a hard hat and clunky steel-toed boots, and shivers when he hears that most new recruits last only three weeks before quitting the job and heading back south.
Peter tries to “fit in” with the hard-bitten miners and spends hours on end alone in his bunkhouse or gazing out over the mountain vistas. The crude language of the northern frontier is captured in the choppy banter between Peter and his co-workers. Swinging the lead, bogging-off, or sucking-up to the bosses are described in colourful, vividly descriptive ways.
He finds acceptance by standing up for fellow workers as a “union man.” In an asbestos mine full of horrors, the shop steward was one of the few people that Peter could turn to for help or moral support. It’s a stereotypical miner’s world where the bosses are mean and brutish and the union provides much-needed solidarity.
Escaping the endless shovelling operation, Peter becomes the union rep and begins to apply his acquired knowledge of health issues. He’s appalled by the safety risks and by the serious health dangers posed by thick asbestos dust for both the mine workers and natives living on a nearby reservation.
The unlikely hero urges his fellow miners to rise up in an effort to extract improved health conditions. Miners living paycheque to paycheque are almost as difficult to win over as the hard-nosed mine operators. He sticks it out for a year, raising health alarm bells that were unknown at the time and concealed by the mining companies.
Rock Reject purports to be a work of fiction. It is actually a thinly veiled version of the real-life experiences of asbestos miners in Cassiar, now a mining ghost town in the far reaches of northern British Columbia.
Asbestos mining in the Cassiar Mountains experienced its heyday in the mid-1970s. The town swelled to 1,500 people, before closing in 1992 with the decline of the B.C. industry.
The book passes the miners’ smell test for authenticity. “Although a work of fiction,” former miner Herb Daum says, “there is much truth in it.” He should know, since he worked in those mines from 1954 until 1983 and now maintains the ghost town’s intriguing website.
Hundreds of former B.C. asbestos miners now live in fear of becoming victims of that deadly asbestos dust. It’s still a headline-grabbing story in British Columbia as well as in Quebec where most of the mines were (and are) located here in Canada.
Williams’ novel is a very timely book. It will stand as a good example of the potential of Canadian social justice literature to reach new audiences. Yet it is, first and foremost, more of a grim reminder of the shameful conduct of the asbestos mine owners and the continuing health risks facing the former workers.
Paul W. Bennett is founding director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and adjunct professor of education, Saint Mary’s University.