Ah, the lazy days of summer. Nothing like heading to the beach with some kind of juicy page-turner – perhaps, a non-fiction legal procedural about a civil lawsuit in Massachusetts in the 1980s?
Stay with me.
A Civil Action begins on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1986 with lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, a brilliant and complex attorney on the verge of losing it all. As the book opens, Schlichtmann is close to homeless, behind on three mortgages and unable to make payments on his maxed out credit cards and the computers at his law firm. He has to walk to the courthouse, because he no longer has money for a cab.
“You involved in that case?” a sheriff asks, as he repossesses Schlichtmann’s black Porsche 928.
A Civil Action is the true story of Schlichtmann’s David and Goliath legal fight against powerful corporations accused of environmental contamination that were alleged to have resulted in high rates of leukemia in children in Woburn, Mass. Reported over eight years by journalist Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action came out to rave reviews, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 1995, and becoming a New York Times bestseller. It has earned comparisons to the seminal true crime classic In Cold Blood and was later turned into a movie starring John Travolta (but don’t hold that against it.)
Yes, A Civil Action is a non-fiction legal procedural, but it is carried with taut writing, detailed on-the-scene reporting and a compelling and suspenseful narrative. Filled with colourful characters and unexpected twists, the book is as much of a page-turner as any John Grisham book. In fact, Mr. Grisham himself provided a blurb for the book cover, writing, “Whether in truth or fiction, I have never read a more compelling chronicle of litigation.”
But A Civil Action is more than a courtroom drama. It is also the story of an underdog fight, a tale of perseverance and the search for justice. It has triumph and loss, pride and principle, all wound into a story as engaging as any other sun-bleached thriller – and maybe even more so, because it’s true.