In the mountains of British Columbia, about a hundred kilometres south of the Yukon border, a small green sign on the side of the road alerts travellers to a unique sight: an abandoned town named Cassiar.
Empty houses lie broken in the wide valley and the low, grey-topped mountains are sparsely covered by small pines. Visitors who venture further down the road, past the last caved-in roof, can see the remains of a large industrial building, a twisted mass of metal girders standing guard over a large mound of crushed ore. This is all that remains of the Cassiar asbestos mine, where Jim Williams worked almost 30 years ago. Williams spent his days in the dusty, cramped quarters of the “rock reject” area, shovelling load after load of black rock onto a mill-bound conveyor belt, each stone slivered with tiny white fibres of chrysotile asbestos.
“It really was as hellish a place as I have tried to depict [in Rock Reject],” says Williams, a first-time author who now lives in Halifax. “The workers were represented by the United Steelworkers of America, and I became a shop steward and also was the health and safety representative for the union.”
Williams has taken those experiences and crafted a novel of substance that carries more weight than a didactic account of a workplace struggle. Rock Reject is lifted up on the shoulders of Peter Stevens, the novel’s complicated and flawed protagonist. Grieving the death of his wife, Peter drops out of medical school and flees Toronto. He ends up in the fictional town of Stikine, British Columbia, where he finds work as a labourer in the mine. Peter is withdrawn; his grief and guilt prevent him from developing friendships with his fellow workers. When the union president is killed in a workplace accident, Peter is forced out of his shell and becomes active in the union.
He begins to press the company for protection from the asbestos dust, not only for the workers but also for the Aboriginal community that lives downwind from the mine. He encounters stiff resistance from both management and some of the workers, which only strengthens his resolve. This struggle brings Peter a sense of purpose, pulling him back into the world, where he is finally able to come to terms with the truth of his wife’s death.
“The engagement with the outside world, acting on behalf of others,” says Williams, “allows Peter to confront his memories in their fullest, and to accept responsibility for his actions.”
Rock Reject is the inaugural recipient of the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature. The annual award provides the winner with $1,000 and a publication contract with Roseway Publishing.
The Beacon Award was created by a small group of Maritime activists and writers who were inspired by the Bellwether Prize, a similar award founded by American author Barbara Kingsolver. Among the group were Errol Sharpe and Beverley Rach of Fernwood Publishing, who had recently acquired Roseway Press and wanted to establish the imprint as a publisher of social justice fiction.
“The seed for the Beacon Award was planted, though the project is still unfolding,” says Anne Bishop, author of Becoming an Ally and member of the Beacon Social Justice Literary Society. “We are a small group of volunteers, and for the time being we accept submissions only from authors based in the three Maritime provinces. Of course, we would love to expand to something national someday.”
With the release of Rock Reject, the Beacon Award committee has given Williams the chance to share the stories of the ghosts of Cassiar, tales of inner struggle and political solidarity that are tragic but ultimately hopeful. In so doing, they have succeeded in their aim of supporting fiction that can “ignite readers’ passion for and understanding of social justice.” – Briarpatch 2012
Hell on Earth: A Review of Jim Williams Rock Reject
Asbestos was once referred to as the “miracle fibre.” It’s used as a binder in cement, as insulation and in anti-fire walls. It’s also a carcinogen with a legacy of death that stretches across the globe. It causes cancerous growths on the lungs as well as a number of other fatal diseases. Until recently, Canada was one of the world’s largest asbestos producers and exporters, behind only Russia. In Jim Williams’s debut novel Rock Reject, winner of the inaugural Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature, he describes the experiences of miners in northern British Columbia at a time when asbestos mining was a lucrative industry and safety took a back seat to profits.
The novel’s protagonist is Peter, a medical school student from a privileged background. Unable to face the painful reminders of loss, he departs for self-exile on the mountaintop mine of Stikine after the tragic death of his young wife. The mud-splattered sign leading into town reads “Home of the World’s Finest Asbestos.” Stikine is loosely based on the Cassier mine, about 220 kilometres south of the Yukon boarder. It was there that Jim Williams spent some months during his early 20s working as a labourer.
While the narrative treads some familiar ground and is, at times, too convenient (Peter’s father is a respected physician who specializes in lung diseases) its strengths are in describing the hellish working conditions at the mine. Stikine seems to exist in a bubble outside of time and space, a setting more akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than a modern industrial workplace. The stark images are both revealing and, at times, shocking. Peter works in the aptly named “Rock Reject,” a desolate pit where he shovels split rock and heavy dust onto a conveyor belt. This is Williams’s writing at its most effective, evoking a palpable sense of claustrophobia and dread: “Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling, lighting the dust that floated in the cold air, so thick that the view beyond fifty feet was obscured in the haze. Peter felt the back of his throat tighten with each breath he took.”
But Rock Reject is not without its faults. The novel turns maudlin in its reliance on the familiar theme of redemption through suffering. Rock Reject doesn’t quite inspire empathy for its protagonist, but it does leave the reader with a feeling of dismay that such an industry was, for decades, propped up by public funds.
Recently, the federal and Quebec governments reneged on their promise to spend $50 million to assist in the reopening of two asbestos mines. Those local industries once provided 85 per cent of the world’s supply of asbestos. It’s clear the cause has been abandoned. It is voices like Williams’s protagonist, Peter, which helped hasten its demise. – Toronto Review of Books
Working in an asbestos mine is definitely dangerous to your health. More than 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-caused diseases; mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. It’s an insidious health risk because the latency period between exposure and diagnosis is 20 to 50 years, making it a silent killer difficult to track.
Life in a northern British Columbia asbestos mining town would seem to provide an ideal locale for a novel aimed at exposing past injustices and promoting social change. Jim Williams’ novel Rock Reject fills the bill and does so in disburbing, haunting fashion.
The novel transports us back to 1974. Grieving the loss of his wife to an unexpected hemorrhage, the central character, Peter Stevens, quits medical school and leaves Toronto for the Stikine region of northern B.C., determinded to “find himself” or “prove himself” in a virtual hellhole on the frontier.
Spurning his doctor father’s wishes, he breaks away and hires on as a simple
labourer in the “rock reject” section of the asbestos mine. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is the inscription on the sign at the entrance to the noisy, dusty area of the mine where Peter shovels split rock and residue onto a conveyor belt all day long.
Peter’s personal exile takes him to “the end of the goddam road” and it would be hard to imagine a more dangerous or gloomy workplace. The bookish “greenhorn” trades his London Fog overcoat for a hard hat and clunky steel-toed boots, and shivers when he hears that most new recruits last only three weeks before quitting the job and heading back south.
Peter tries to “fit in’ with the hard-bitten miners and spends hours on end alone in his bunkhouse or gazing out over the mountain vistas. The crude language of the northern frontier is captured in the choppy banter between Peter and his co-workers. Swinging the lead, bogging-off, or sucking-up to the bosses are described in colourful, vividly descriptive ways. He finds acceptance by standing up for fellow workers as a “union man.” In an asbestos mine full of horrors, the shop steward was one of the few people that Peter could turn to for help or moral support. It’s a sterotypical miner’s world where the bosses are mean and brutish and the union provides much-needed solidarity.
Escaping the endless shovelling operation, Peter becomes the union rep and begins to apply his acquired knowledge of health issues. He’s appalled by the safety risks and by the serious health dangers posed by thick asbestos dust for both the mine workers and natives living on a nearby reservation.
The unlikely hero urges his fellow miners to rise up in an effort to extract improved health conditions. Miners living paycheque to paycheque are almost as difficult to win over as the hard-nosed mine operators. He sticks it out for a year, raising health alarm bells that were unknown at the time and concealed by the mining companies.
Rock Reject purports to be a work of fiction. It is actually a thinly veiled version of the real-life experiences of asbestos miners in Cassiar, now a mining ghost town in the far reaches of northern British Columbia.
Asbestos mining in the Cassiar Mountains experienced its heyday in the mid 1970s. The town swelled to 1,500 people, before closing in 1992 with the decline of the B.C. industry.
The book passes the miners’ smell test for authenticity. “Although a work of fiction,” former miner Herb Daum says, “there is much truth in it.” He should know, since he worked in those mines from 1954 until 1983 and now maintains the ghost town’s intriguing website.
Hundreds of former B.C. asbestos miners now live in fear of becoming victims of that deadly asbestos dust. It’s still a headline-grabbing story in British Comunbia as well as in Quebec where most of the mines were (and are) located here in Canada.
Williams’ novel is a very timely book. It will stand as a good example of the potential of Canadian social justice literature to reach new audiences. Yet it is, first and foremost, more of a grim reminder of the shameful conduct of the asbestos mine owners and the continuing health risks facing the former workers. — Halifax Chronicle Herald
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 stuggle.
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. – Quill and Quire
Rock Reject won the 2011 inaugural Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature, which is an honour for author Jim Williams, but could be something of a warning sign for readers simply seeking a good story well-told, rather than a literary lesson on the ills of the world.
Luckily, the book, about a mine in Stikine, B.C. “Home of the World’s Best Asbestos,” in 1974, is motivated more by character than cause.
The narrative is set in motion when Peter, a medical-school dropout, leaves Toronto burdened with guilt that he is responsible for the death of Rose, his young wife. He sees the mines as the “end of the goddamn road,” the perfect place for the self-flagellation he seeks.
He trades his London Fog overcoat for a hard-hat and steel-toed boots, and a job so tough, most guys last three weeks before quitting and heading back south. It is masculine story, in character, setting, dialogue and style, the writing as tight and wiry as the hard men who mine.
Despite the isolation he thinks he needs, Peter can’t help getting involved in the medical and political dimensions of the blatant asbestos exposure that is happening around him. And the reader can’t help getting involved in the story, which makes personal a headline-grabbing story that most readers will know, but, until this book, probably haven’t really felt. – Telegraph-Journal
Picture it: 1970s Canada. Our protagonist, Peter, is a privileged man-boy from Toronto. His path is all laid out for him: med school, loving young wife, a starched-collar father. But like so many young white men, Peter has to destroy his whole world just to realize the gifts he was given.
And destroy it he does.
Author Jim Williams sends poor Peter through a series of tribulations, and at each turn Peter manages to muck up his own situation in such a failing fashion that the reader is almost faced with a protagonist with whom it’s impossible to empathize. And Peter isn’t just ruining his own life. Not by a long shot.
When his self-created tragedy strikes, poor Peter runs as far and as fast from the scene as he can, and winds up in a Yukon asbestos mine. It’s a harrowing hell on Earth, an attempt at suicide of sorts and our hard-to-like protagonist buries himself in the rough comfort and sense-numbing exhaustion that comes with a singular commitment to back-breaking labour. One gets the sense that Peter works in order to destroy himself or, at the very least, to escape himself.
Of course, no matter where you go, there you are deep in the Earth’s bowels, and Peter must inevitably come to terms with what he has done. A rag-tag world of hard-luck miners surround Peter, and despite his best efforts at the pariah-like isolation he feels he deserves, a world of dreamers and schemers begins to open up around him.
Buoyed on by Williams’s cross-Canada cornucopia of characters, Peter rekindles his purpose, and finds a home in the labour struggles that surround him. The union becomes a surrogate parent, in which Peter finally finds a means by which to apply his education, his privilege. The asbestos the men are mining is slowly killing them; management is covering it all up; and up in Stikine, deep in the Yukon, Peter is the only one who can bring the damning proof to light.
Williams give Peter a second chance at finding a moral compass, and despite my best efforts to give up on Peter as an un-salvageable piece of human detritus, I found myself begrudgingly rooting for his efforts when applied to the larger struggle. It’s a testament to Williams’s writing abilities that even a character as initially morally reprehensible as Peter can gain some measure of salvation. It’s also a testament to the potential value of unions in a worker’s life.
Rock Reject (Roseway Publishing) is the 2011 winner of the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature. — Halifax Media Coop