Author Tags: Fiction, Mining
Born and raised in Vancouver, Jim Williams has lived Toronto, San Francisco, and Halifax, working at many jobs along the way, including the asbestos mine and mill depicted in his novel Rock Reject (Roseway, 2012).
It's 1974 and Peter has fled from Toronto to take a job at a Stikine asbestos mine in northern B.C. shovelling split rock and dust onto a conveyor belt. The Company insists the mine poses no health risks to its works or the residents of the nearby First Nations community. Based on the experiences of novelist Jim Williams, Rock Reject (Roseway $19.95) is a realistic rendering of how a young man can't help but become involved in the welfare of others while he's emotionally stranded on a mountaintop. Williams, born and raised in Vancouver, has received the 2011 Inaugural Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature for his manuscript; now a likely contender for the annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. literature. 9781552665169
Rock Reject (Roseway, 2012) $19.95 9781552665169
Rock Reject by Jim Williams (Roseway/Fernwood $19.95)
from Jeremy Twigg
Peter stevens has hit rock bottom. He holds himself accountable for his girlfriend’s death. Plagued with guilt, he drops out of medical school and leaves Toronto to punish himself by becoming a labourer at an asbestos mine in northern B.C.
The cold, wet, grey weather reflects his defeated state-of-mind as he arrives at the Stikine mine, ‘Home of the World’s Finest Asbestos.’ Welcome to 1973, where smoking is the norm, and asbestos hasn’t yet become a dirty word.
Set in the ‘one-time town’ of Cassiar, Jim Williams’ novel Rock Reject starts off at a deliberately slow, dreary pace until Peter makes a gruesome discovery in ‘rock reject,’ where ore is crushed for processing. “Twenty feet away and coming towards him on the conveyor belt was a dark shape. A lumpy pile of rags. A parka, coveralls, boots. A pool of red.” This is the moment our reluctant hero wakes from his mental fog.
The tragic accident in rock reject catapults Peter from newbie labourer to safety crusader. He joins the union and uses his medical training to push Pan-American Asbestos, commonly known as ‘The Company,’ to control the green asbestos dust that blankets the mine, the town, and the valley. No one seems to care about the valley. As one worker remarks, “It’s only Indians live down in the valley.” Racism is rampant.
Action is slow to build, but the series of tragic events that unfold feel as though they’re gleaned from first-hand experience. Peter’s mental fog borders on frustrating, but his awakening after the accident at the crusher is satisfying: “He lay his hands open on the desk. Calloused and strong from swinging a pick and shovel, he clenched them into fists and watched his forearms grow, bigger than he had ever seen them before.” It’s a turning point. Action will be taken.
The novel is historically-based. At issue is whether the type of asbestos the company mines is harmful to human health. As the safety inspector incorrectly informs Peter, “The scientists say that chrysotile fibre doesn’t cause disease, and that’s that.” Trouble is, the scientists are in the back pocket of industry.
Rock Reject is a worthwhile read. What it lacks in surprise, it more than makes up for in authenticity. As the author points out, “More than 100,000 people die each year from lung disease caused by occupational exposure to asbestosis.” Williams’ work of fiction is firmly rooted in truth.