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A Civil Action

Jonathan Harr

Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-394-56349-2

502 pages; $25.00

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel (c) 2001

A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr



Non Fiction, Mystery


(Note, 2002: Please forget the John Travolta movie, if you've seen it, and read this book first. See the movie later, if you insist. I actually haven't seen the movie, but the book is too good to be relegated to 'Made into a movie featuring John Travolta'.)

The problems inherent in the American judicial system are a part of everybody's daily lives, whether you experience them first-hand in the courts or read about them ad nauseam in the press. From either source we get a very limited perspective into these problems; our first-hand experience is restricted to the small-time and nearly insignificant, and our experience with larger problems of jurisprudence is delineated by what our free press is willing and able to report. In 'A Civil Action' Jonathan Harr follows one important lawsuit, from conception to conclusion, in a detailed and fascinating history that stretches over nearly thirty years. Scary, funny and informative, it's the kind of book that makes you want to write letters to the people in power when you've finished reading.

'A Civil Action' starts in 1966, when a priest moves into the town of Woburn Massachusetts, where the water tastes really, really bad. It's sometimes brown and discolored; sometimes, it makes people's eyes sting in the shower. Some people are prone to skin rashes. It's an inconvenience that can be lived with, until the children start dying of leukemia. Not just one, but a number of children, children who lived in the same neighborhood, and whose water came from two wells that were quite near two factories. 'A Civil Action' is the story of the lawyer hired by those families to sue the corporations responsible for contaminating the wells that supplied the water for a population that was poisoned slowly.

The author was in on the suit from the beginning, over the eight years it took the bring it to and through the courts. He covers every part of the trial from the first contact of the plaintiffs with the lawyer to the final nightmare tangle of appeals, rulings and rejections. The entire legal process for this case is laid bare in disturbing, hilarious and often surreal episodes.

'A Civil Action' is excellently organized, and makes it possible to follow the complex progress of an American lawsuit through the American legal system. Judges, juries and lawyers are viewed in an unsparing light, their weaknesses and strengths, their faults and merits made plain. The author portrays the flamboyant lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in all of his glorious reality. His story is a classic example of hubris, his rise and fall compelling and repellent. His counterpart, the careful corporate representative is the perfect foil.

What Harr has managed to do most effectively is to organize this information into something closely resembling a novel, with a clear flow of events, with causes and effects that even the participants are unable to see. It's a masterful piece of writing, and powerful vision of America and American justice at the turn of the century. More gripping than contrived courtroom dramas, and better organized than the most carefully plotted novels, 'A Civil Action' is the perfect demonstration that reality is more compelling -- and weirder -- than fiction.