Review

Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster

by Melissa Fay Greene



Hemingway said the things that you want are like cards. You don't
want a particular card, say the ten of hearts, unless it has some
extrinsic significance other than itself. It could be a trump card.
It could be the last card in your straight flush. It could be your
margin of victory if you double-down on eleven, or the last thing
you want to see if you have sixteen and the dealer's showing
nineteen and you go bust. The intrinsic value of the little piece
of pasteboard, in and of itself, is nothing and, sooner or later,
it just gets shuffled back into the deck anyway.

But sometimes the things you want aren't like cards; sometimes you
want them just because you want the things themselves, because you
need them, because you literally can't do without them. Sometimes
the things you want are like a few drops of water, coursing down a
filthy pipe. Sometimes the things you want are to hear the far-off
sounds of people digging, coming to rescue you. Sometimes the
things you want are little pieces of sunlight, or one more memory
of a hunting trip, or to know that your husband is alive,
underground, and that he is making his way out of the very pit of
death. Sometimes the things that you want matter more than any card
ever could.

LAST MAN OUT: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster is about
those latter things --- how we want them and why. It provides an
hour-by-hour narrative of two groups of miners stranded deep
underground after a 1958 disaster in a Nova Scotia coal mine.
Somewhere deep in the dark of the mines, there came a "bump" --- a
small earthquake, perhaps, or the eruption of a long-forgotten seam
of coal gas. The men of the afternoon shift of Mine #2 were hard at
work when it came, digging coal from the earth, wanting the things
that they wanted --- a fishing weekend on the Bay of Fundy, new
furniture for the living room, shoes for the kids --- when the
floor sprang from beneath their feet and smashed them into the
ceiling, killing many, and leaving two groups of survivors trapped
below.

Author Melissa Fay Greene calls them the "Group of Seven" and the
"Group of Twelve" --- good, honest, working men caught under the
crust of the earth like flies in amber. She skillfully combines
interviews from the remaining survivors with research files from
historical sources --- psychological studies on underground
survival --- providing the reader with a rare glimpse of what goes
on in men's minds in utter darkness and total devastation. She
details the struggles of the Group of Twelve with coal gas and
exhaustion, and the anguish of the Group of Seven in dealing with
the injury of one of their number: a man with an arm trapped
between two timbers that are also holding up the ceiling. Greene's
narrative is harrowing and unsparing, putting the reader right down
in the darkest recesses of the mine, feeling the torment and pain
along with the luckless miners.

But the story takes place above ground and people are still looking
for the things that they want there. The reporters want a good
story and, in the infancy of television, they want electricity and
network connections and people to interview and places to work. The
rescuers want to keep working, but they also want hope. How can
there be any hope with so many men dead and so little chance of
rescuing those left alive? And then there are the people on the
farthest edges who want other things --- not to have Ed Sullivan
mad at them or to improve the tourist traffic in coastal Georgia
--- that intersect with the story of the trapped miners in
unpredictable ways.

Greene's book is outstanding, not just as an analysis of the men in
the mine, but as a microcosm, a laboratory slide, of North America
in the last sliver of the 1950's, and how the coming of the
television age and the first rumblings of the civil rights movement
were affecting and changing the cultural landscape. LAST MAN OUT is
a comprehensive look at a single traumatic instant and a study of
how that instant reverberated through society. If you're looking
for a superbly written, thoughtful book, then this is what you
want.

Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster
by Melissa Fay Greene

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2003
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151005591
  • ISBN-13: 9780151005598