On October 23, 1958, gases from deep within the earth shot skyward, causing entire floors of rock to rise instantly in a coal mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia, trapping 174 men underground. Seventy-five miners never made it out alive. Miraculously, two small groups of miners survived the initial "bump" but were sealed in small caverns deep within the coal. Surrounded by foul air and total darkness, and with precious little food and water, the men vacillated between optimism and hopelessness as they tried to maintain sanity amidst horrific conditions. Above them, fellow miners and rescue workers dug desperately to get them out, clinging to the unwritten Miner's Code that no man shall be left behind. After a week of digging and with hope all but exhausted, they found one group of a dozen miners; a day later seven more men were discovered. Melissa Fay Greene describes this harrowing ordeal in sharp detail, effectively capturing the drama of the event for both the miners trapped below and their distraught families waiting above.
Placing the event into a larger context, Greene describes how it became the first nationally televised disaster, as journalists from all over Canada and the U.S. converged on the small town and camped at the entrance of the mine. After their rescue, the men were the center of media attention, and some of them became instant celebrities (one was chosen as Canada's "Citizen of the Year"; another became a spokesman for 7-Up soda). She also details the bizarre episode in which an assistant to the governor of Georgia tried to spin the disaster into a marketing gimmick to promote tourism. To the segregationist governor's chagrin, one of the rescued miners turned out to be black, presenting him with a potential public relations nightmare. Though her use of fictionalized dialogue between the miners is sometimes distracting, Greene's extensive research brings this remarkable story to life, making Last Man Out an absorbing re-creation of a forgotten episode. --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
The mining disaster that killed 75 men in Nova Scotia in 1958 is rich terrain for a good yarn, but Greene's book about the miners who survived and those who didn't comes up short. Her research is adequate, but surprisingly, NBA finalist Greene fails to bring this tale to life. In re-creating the events leading up to and following the catastrophe, imagined dialogue rings inauthentic: that miners gathered around a colleague with a mile of rock pinning his arm down exclaim, Oh my God, oh my God, and Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, seems a tad polite, even for 1950s Canada. Similarly, the author's overreliance on exclamation points in dialogue forces tension and excitement. As well, the miner subculture isn't effectively captured, and the buildup to the explosion, known as the Bump, is bereft of suspense. The story gets interesting after the rescue of 19 men, who are subsequently exploited by various factions, including the media and the public relations aide to a segregationist U.S. governor, who arranges to fly the survivors and their families to a beach resort the governor's state is looking to promote. The presumed PR goes horribly awry when it's learned that one miner is black, as are his 12 children. Greene (Praying for Sheetrock; Temple Bombing) does prove successful in her fascinating narrative on this miner an amateur musician known as the Singing Miner and Canada's Citizen of the Year in 1958. But sadly, his is the only head that Greene succeeds in getting into.
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