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  • A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community by Jessica Van Horssen
  • Robynne Mellor
Jessica Van Horssen, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2016)

Van Horssen's book is an analysis of what happens when bodies – "bodies of land, human bodies, and the body politic" (8) – collide. The book, which focuses on the history of the asbestos mine located in Asbestos, Québec, is a combination of environmental, medical, and political history. Van Horssen argues that the local fluctuations within the town of Asbestos were intimately connected to the global asbestos market. She aims to show not only how humans in Asbestos shaped the natural world around them, but also how the interaction of the people of Asbestos with their environs shaped the community and relationships among the people in the town.

Overall, Van Horssen argues that the story of the Johns-Manville Company's (jm) action in Asbestos was one of duplicity and dishonesty. jm knowingly and willingly sacrificed the health and lives of asbestos miners and the wellbeing of the community in order to make a greater profit. The miners responded to this treatment with the 1949 strike, which Van Horssen argues was a local conflict, pushing back against previous narratives of the clash.

Van Horssen makes this argument chrono-thematically, with the 1949 strike [End Page 268] as a central point. There is one chapter that describes Asbestos before the arrival of jm, three chapters that narrate the history of Asbestos between 1918 and 1949, one chapter that closely follows the events of the 1949 strike, and then three chapters on the history of the town between 1949 and 1983. The three chapters that precede the 1949 strike and the three that follow each focus on the same timeline, but they are divided according to theme, with one chapter each devoted to environmental, political, and medical history. Van Horssen introduces every chapter with a short vignette about current-day Asbestos. This division allows for clarity of organization, though it sometimes confuses the intricacies of all the different ways the histories are intertwined.

The first chapter serves as a prologue for the rest of the book. In it, Van Horssen examines the origins of the asbestos deposit in Asbestos, as well as the founding of the Jeffrey Mine, the arrival of miners, and the evolution of the community surrounding the mine. What makes Asbestos an exceptional deposit, she notes, is that it is a "geological quirk" (17) that is entirely accessible through opencast, as opposed to underground, mining. Furthermore, anglophones owned and operated the deposit from the start of its exploitation while francophones worked it, creating a linguistic division and hierarchy that would linger for decades.

Van Horssen's environmental history sections examine how the town continually and literally lost ground to jm's Jeffrey Mine, arguing that time and again those who lived in Asbestos chose to "sacrifice the community to the mine." (34) She describes the ways in which the mine expanded and consumed more land, and how the townspeople responded to the expansion. The constant choices that residents of Asbestos faced were "between forsaking their homes and living in a ghost town." (124) Not surprisingly, they often chose the former.

Van Horssen's sections on the medical history of Asbestos are some of the most fascinating in the book. Perhaps the biggest question one might have about asbestos mining is how did the companies and government cover up the health effects for so long? Van Horssen argues that Johns-Manville was negligent and insidious in its intentions, noting "jm was using the community as a giant research laboratory, with workers and their families working as mice" (51). Though this strong conviction can sometimes cloud the motives and intricacies of the intent of the historical actors Van Horssen describes, she undoubtedly portrays the company as culpable in the workers' sickness. She shows how the workers ignored their own bodily experiences and trusted entirely the word of the company. Moreover, the language barrier prevented the workers from reading the often-damning studies of asbestos coming...


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pp. 268-270
Launched on MUSE
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