Last Man Out book review as it appeared in The Atlanta Jewish Times, 18 April, 2003
Melissa Fay Greene possesses a knack for breathing new life into rare historical accounts. This Druid Hills-based Jewish-American writer has won countless praise and accolades for her muckraking accounts of racism and anti-Semitism in Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing. Greene has become a local historian who educates and entertains hers readers through re-enactments of events in a style that is colorful and accurate.
Ms. Greene carries on that tradition with her new piece of non-fiction in Last Man Out: The Story Of The Springhill Mine Disaster (Harcourt, Inc.). In what might seem like a departure from her previous work, The Temple Bombing, Ms. Greene takes the reader to the mining town of Springhill, Nova Scotia.
It is the story of how a tiny hamlet in Canada was changed forever when its economic engine came to a grinding halt when the moment of “The Bump” occurred. That was when the lives of Springhill’s residents turned upside down when a mine collapsed, trapping 18 of its miners for nine gut-wrenching days.
Greene goes into vivid detail of the events that unfolded underground as well as over-ground. The book gives the feeling of claustrophobia as Greene chronicles the miners’ survival in the dark, deep, cold earth. Above ground, the reader feels the pain of the families, residents, and emergency workers who worked around the clock to rescue Springhill’s heroes.
Way before the Baby Jessica rescue in Texas in the late ‘80s and the recent Pennsylvania miners’ rescue, there was the Springhill mine collapse. The world watched with baited-breath as a new medium known as television carried hours of coverage. Letters and cards of sympathy along with donations came from viewers who were hoping and praying for the best.
Even Ed Sullivan kept vigil for the trapped Canadian miners on his weekly CBS television variety show. Emotions ran high in the United States that week. When Comedian Shecky Green unknowingly made an off-color remark that was perceived as a mockery to the trapped miners during his act on the show, Sullivan immediately fired him from the show and was never invited back.
As the week went on in Canada, a young governor’s aide in Georgia cooked up a public relations scheme to increase travel to the Peach State which was losing travel dollars to Florida. Sam Caldwell, who worked for the staunch segregationist Governor Marvin Griffin, thought he could cash in on the media feeding frenzy by inviting the trapped miners and their families to Jekyll Island. What Caldwell did not know was that one of the miners was Maurice Ruddick, an African-Canadian with 13 kids. For Griffin, this was a PR disaster waiting to happen. Greene boldly recreates the following scene:
“Goddamn Caldwell, they got nigger coal miners in Canada?” Griffin yelled. “I don’t know. I didn’t think so,” Caldwell replied. Without asking permission, Sam Caldwell sat down in an armchair facing the Governor’s desk.
Instead of firing Caldwell, Griffin assigned him to “repair” the PR damage. When the miners were rescued and did the media circuit, they agreed to come to Jekyll Island. Caldwell frantically made sure Ruddick and his family were comfortable, yet separate. Ms. Greene masterfully shows how segregation tore apart the survivors, their families, the State of Georgia, and the nation.
Like all news stories that were ingrained in the national psyche, Greene lets the reader know that this story quickly faded as well. The media went home and the glory vanished overnight. Depression and infighting among the survivors and the town of Springhill set in. It would never be the same again.
Author Melissa Fay Greene uses the pages of her books as a canvas to paint accurate, detailed pictures of history. Her work is so alive that all three of her books have the potential to become screenplays. Last Man Out: The Story Of The Springhill Mine Disaster proves that Greene remains dedicated to her craft. The Atlanta Jewish community is fortunate to have such a master storyteller and historian who shows a passion for her subject.