When does 2% become 100%? The answer can be found in Michael Smith’s riveting book about working the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota. There he encounters The Williston Hello. Two short sentences kick off most initial meetings between the guys drifting into town. The first is “What kind of work you do?” The second is “Man, my dad whipped my ass!” Smith goes on to write: “That scar, that hole in a man’s soul the shape of his father, was a defining feature of every man I met in Williston. Men had built their lives around it. Like a tree growing around a hatchet,” as physical and psychological wounds meshed in guys taking on some of the toughest, coldest jobs in the world.
Michael Patrick F. Smith is a folk singer who has shared the stage with luminaries such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He’s also a playwright, whose works include Woody Guthrie Dreams and Ain’t No Sin. The Good Hand is his first book.
In America, since 1900, over 100,000 coal miners have died in industrial accidents. Lately, though, Appalachia has been seeing far worse. The opioid crisis hit the region hard. Black lung, a disease that Congress tried to curb in 1969 by passing legislation meant to force coal barons to do a better job protecting the miners’ health, has increased. Pitting the miners’ pride and fear against the greed of wealthy coal barons, this is a story about a hard-pressed region struggling to stay afloat.
Chris Hamby is an investigate reporter at the New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2014 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting in 2017. A native of Nashville, he lives and works in Washington, D.C.
This episode explores the experiences of a workforce, primarily male, that has long been exploited by those in power in West Virginia’s near-feudal economy. King Coal rules, and miners’ health and lives have been shortchanged in the process. Hamby documents how a few good-hearted people have fought for justice against mine owners, lawyers, and doctors only too eager to dismiss the miners’ legitimate health claims. It’s a parable that fits our era of looming economic inequality.