On Friday the fifteenth of March, Greta Thunberg proclaimed another #FridaysForFuture—a day when students skipped school to protest for responsible energy usage and a cleaner, greener planet. I watched videos of thousands of students out on the streets, holding up signs and shouting things like “You’re killing our lungs!” The same day, I accompanied a friend as he passed out flyers at our legislative building. It was easy to believe that we could have some impact on what lawyers and legislators decided. And yet—what if you were the only voice? Would you be lost in the opposition?
A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr, is the true story of one of the first environmental lawyers, Jan Schlichtmann. The book begins in the town of Woburn, Massachusetts, where an odd cluster of deadly leukemia cases causes Anne Osborne, a mother of one of the leukemia victims, to become suspicious. Could those cases have any correlation with the low water quality of those particular areas? Anne becomes convinced that the water has been polluted by two companies established near the town’s wells, leading to the increase leukemia cases—and the death of her child. She hires Jan Schlichtmann, a fresh, flamboyant lawyer, to work on the case. But Schlichtmann is young, reckless, and inexperienced—how will he ever survive against not one, but two huge companies?
Jan Schlichtmann is a fascinating man, mainly because he is such a curious mix of contradictions. He is a lavish spender, free and reckless with money, but when it comes to meetings with his banker, he is timid and bashful about his lack of financial knowledge. And, although loud and dominant in court, he is humble and self-effacing once off the stage. Jan, however, is always stubborn. Against his colleagues’ advice, he pours millions of dollars into the Woburn case. But the odds are ominous; even the judge seems to dislike him. Will Schlichtmann be able to use his unique personality to his advantage, or will it be turned against him?
As I read A Civil Action, it became apparent to me that the justice system was far from perfect. Although the judge was supposed to be fair and impartial, what about unconscious biases? Or how about the testimony of a witness who was later discovered to have lied under oath? If everyone was completely trustworthy and transparent, trials would seem to be much simpler; but the lawyers were forced to rely on confusing, rapid-fire questioning and tedious nitpicking. And though we feel distanced from the dishonorable actions of others, how would we behave in the same situation? What does such lying and dishonesty say about us?
A Civil Action is a troubling true story of a world that we often close our eyes to. Are we honest or dishonest? Blind or blinded? Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: this Wisdom is for the future.
High school nonfiction, ages 14 and up.