Review: A Civil Action, Jonathan Harr (1995)
Early in this piece of literary journalism a lawyer is walking down a central Boston street. He is quite famous, having been depicted in a movie about a case he had led. This is cute, as A Civil Action itself was made into a movie, starring John Travolta. Reality mimics reality. A mirror is held up to the book, and it stares back, hard-nosed and powerful. Courtroom drama plays tag with big financial settlements in our mind’s eye. The downtrodden, the neglected, the abused are redeemed by the due process of the law. It is a stirring and engaging scene. Almost.
It is an intriguing book. In this day and age, when the connection between industrial solvents and cancer is well-established, the mystification of doctors, and the slowness of the reaction to multiple cases of leukaemia in a single, small Massachusetts town, is itself something of a puzzle for us.
We feel sorry for Jan Schlichtmann, of course, as he is, at the beginning of the book, out of cash and in serious debt. But his spending patterns give us no confidence in his fiscal judgement. The Porsches are clearly not necessary. The battler families of Woburn earn our commiseration. They are the ones who suffered. Schlichtmann shouldn’t really be the point of the story. But he is. The ostensible point of the story is environmental pollution: a media trope now so well developed that we barely register it when we skim through the daily newspapers.
In those days, however, connections between leukaemia (a blood cancer) and industrial chemicals was a new thing. The book took eight years to write. Published eleven years ago, it forces us to make allowances for the passage of time, and for the significant developments in public consciousness that have occurred thereby.
The plot builds steadily, over decades, from the time of the onset of disease in one child, to death, from the beginning of the court process to the emergence of multiple legal representatives. The evidence supplied by eminent experts goes hand in hand with legal wrangling brought by the defendant’s lawyer, a scruffy villain by the name of Cheeseman. There’s Facher, a rough, slightly cantankerous older lawyer who teaches at the Harvard Law School and makes young female students cry. Schlichtmann stands apart, aiming high, looking toward the big settlement.
All of this is, of course, true. It really happened. And so while we study the development of the plot we are also conscious of the emergence of public perceptions that have led to where we stand today, in the twenty-first century, atop a massive pile of precedent and received knowledge. This case has contributed to making us what we are.