Kirkus Reviews QR Code
COAL by Barbara Freese Kirkus Star


A Human History

by Barbara Freese

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7382-0400-5
Publisher: Perseus

The history of coal, that unglamorous substance that environmental attorney Freese manages to buff until it shines like its distant cousin the diamond.

Coal’s heat-giving qualities weren’t what first attracted people to it, explains Freese, but jet—a type of hard, shiny coal—was prized for use as ornamentation. It wasn’t long, though, before coal became known as the genie bearing the gift of warmth and power, with all kinds of strings attached. Freese concentrates her story on the evolution of coal in Great Britain, the US, and China. It was used in what became Wales during the Bronze Age to cremate the dead and in Stone Age China as jewelry, but its world-changing properties weren’t tapped until later, when it warmed the hearth and drove the engine of industry. Freese’s writing is a bit like coal—smooth and glinting, burning with a steady warmth—though with none of its downsides, for coal also contributed to miserable air quality, black-lung disease, scarred landscapes, and outrageous working conditions, along with “social and economic policies that tolerated and exacerbated the suffering” that gave rise to both the Molly Maguires and the Pinkerton Agency as well as a whole distinct class of “social outcasts who faced astonishing dangers in providing an increasingly vital commodity.” Freese gives ample space to coal’s polluting nature (as Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota, she became involved in investigating its effects both within and outside the state), the consequences it wrought on London and continues to heap on China, as well as its role in acid rain, smog, disease, global warming, and possible influence on natural climatic jolts, all the while keeping the story lively with a wealth of fascinating coal-related oddments.

It’s dirty, it’s cheap, and its past—in Freese’s hands—makes for an intriguing, cautionary tale. (Photo insert)