Hell on Earth: A Review of Jim Williams’s Rock Reject

Rock Reject
By Jim Williams
Fernwood Press 2012
$19.95 248 pages

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.