There is no question that asbestos is dangerous. Jim Williams’ Rock Reject, which won the inaugural Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature, is dedicated to the 100,000 people who die each year from exposure to the substance. The novel provides a powerful glimpse of the risks that accrue for the people who mine it, while also telling a touching story of personal struggle.
The novel opens in 1974. Feeling responsible for the death of his wife, Peter Stevens drops out of med school and leaves Toronto for the Stikine region of Northern B.C., where he hires on as a labourer in the “rock reject” asbestos mine. There he hopes to escape his grief, his guilt, and his parents, but also perhaps to punish himself for past sins. Peter’s painful history unfolds for the reader as he adapts to mining life, preferring to remain withdrawn from his co-workers.
Initially stationed in the mine, and later becoming union rep, Peter witnesses not only the safety risks of an underfunded mining operation but also the serious health effects the thick asbestos dust has on the mine’s employees and the natives living on a nearby reservation. Finding a purpose, Peter employs his medical background to counteract the detrimental impact of the mine.
Williams, who has first-hand experience in asbestos mining, effectively blends fact and fiction, though his prose sometimes comes across as clunky: the pace dawdles and the dialogue is at times stilted and unconvincing. Nevertheless, the author’s sense of place and character is strong. Peter’s loneliness and grief are palpable, and his frustrating fight for social justice is particularly charged. Aside from the hasty and regrettably corny conclusion, the novel succeeds in telling a moving story of political change and human struggle.