You'd think that life-long friendships would bond a group of coal miners rescued after more than a week of being buried alive, but it didn't work out that way for the 18 Nova Scotians whose story Melissa Fay Greene recounts in her new book Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster. Surviving nature's violence and overcoming bruised egos were only two of the challenges the men faced as a result of the disaster, which Greene recounts through exhaustive and meticulous research. Remarkably, she is able to reconstruct their 1958 ordeal of being entombed in the world's deepest coal mine, located in Springhill, Nova Scotia, as well as the aftermath of the tragedy, and she caps the story with a wonderfully moving account of the town's remembrances more than four decades later.
After the underground geological convulsion that claimed 75 lives, Greene finds "deep in the pit, the survivors loved their mothers and wives more tenderly than ever and promised God they'd show the women how much they loved them, if only they could be released from this hole and permitted to walk, once more, up a little blacktop street toward home." Then, using their own words, she records the trapped miners' swings from determination and anger to disgust and fear, and, in some cases, hallucination. However, disaster does not always equal hopelessness, and we also meet the heroes, the miners who buoyed the spirits of their colleagues while the odor of rotting corpses wafted around them. After the rescue, the media, as is their wont, singled out one miner for more attention than the others, sowing resentment and dividing forever the men who once were united in tragedy. We see how they coped or didn't cope with post-trauma stress and how the passing of years has twisted their memories and their families' recollections of the most important event of their lives. This is a superb study of the human condition in extremis. Now we can almost laugh at the conniptions of hapless Georgia officials who seeking to promote segregated Jekyll Island as a resort area invited the miners to vacation there, only to discover that the last man rescued was black.
Greene's previous books, Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing, were National Book Award finalists. Last Man Out will challenge those readers who tend to prolong the pleasure of a compelling book by rationing the last chapters; they set the book aside after savoring one page and return to it later. This book is sure to break them of that habit. Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, is an ex-newsman and college lecturer.