This is a review of the book Finding Far Way by Lisa Wade. Book reviews tell as much about the reviewer, and maybe more, than they tell of the book and its author. This review is highly colored by the fact that I have consulted to Lisa on a project in Guatemala where she has been in charge of environmental affairs at the Marlin Mine for the past few years. She is about to transfer in August to headoffice, The Mothership, as she call it in her book. She is about to become one of the folk from headquarters who fly down from Vancouver to South and Central American Mines and stir things up, solve problems, and sometimes leave a trail of trepidation and hard work in their wake.
I first contacted Lisa when she e-mailed me and asked me to review a report by one of those anti-mining groups. I read the report, could not make head or tail of it. It claimed the cracked houses were the result of mining activity. This dubious conclusion was reached by a trail of illogic that basically ran thus: the cracks are not the result of poor construction or heaving soils, thus the cause must be the mine. The pictures in the report were so enigmatic and the engineering data so sparse that I could not follow their
I e-mailed Lisa back to say that the only way to tackle the problem was to examine each house in turn and establish the causes of damage of each individual house. I lectured her on the fact that each house is individual and the causes of damage would be individual. I thought I would not hear from her again, having been so forthright.
I was wrong. A few weeks later I was on a plane to Guatemala City where, at the airport, I was accorded all the courtesies given a foreign visitor to a foreign mine: a driver to take me to the hotel, a fancy room, another driver the next morning to a large, imposing office tower, and an escort up the elevator to be introduced to Lisa.
Her Montana accent and energy had come through on the phone calls arranging the visit, but little did I expect the person who pounced at me in the Goldcorp offices. Here was a bundle of ability: a mid-thirty something, with jeans, a tight blouse, a mop of curly ginger hair, soft white skin and piercing eyes. Friendly, quick to get me coffee, and fast to get to the point. A penetrating intellect hid beneath a smile and child-like enthusiasm. Ho can anyone not like her and admire her? The only problem is that you want to paternalize her.
Over the months I worked on the project, she took charge, guided me when my intellect got in the way of pragmatism, when I got lost in the Spanish I could not talk, and when I came up with impractical solutions. She heard every consulting suggestion, improved on it in a minute, and had action underway within an hour. She had me doing things I would not normally dream off: meeting government ministers and talking mining, trekking up valleys to water sampling stations, bouncing in her truck up steep roads to look at distant villages, stepping out late at night into the entertainment district of the city. Most of the time I was glad to have the armed guard besides us; but it was her unpremeditated courage and confidence that had me following her like a besotted puppy—or an anxious father.
I would like to think that together we did a great job. I provided the experience and technical knowledge of why houses crack: mostly because of poor foundations, improper surface water control, and frequent earthquake shaking. She provided the organization, the support, the implementation. I had barely to suggest a course of action and she had it underway. I had barely to ask for a plan, and there it was; ask for a visit to a distant site, and I was there; ask to speak with somebody, and they were listening to me. She herded me and countless others around the city, in an out of posh hotels, into planes, around the mine, off site with armed guards, and into small homes cracked and destroyed by earthquakes and slope instability.
We chatted about writing one evening while eating and drinking. She teased me about my blog, and then admitted her book, Finding Far Away. It came the next week from Amazon.com and lies before me on my desk in Vancouver as I type this review.
The book is personal, sometimes almost too personal. It reads as a private diary that we are privileged to open on a sunny Sunday to peer into other’s lives. We learn almost everything about how she came to be in mining, about her loves and hates, her work, and the people on the mines she manages and reports to. This is a diary of her time in Peru as Manager of Environmental Affairs on a mine just over the Continental Divide. She writes of the gut-wrenching flights over the high mountains, the gut-wrenching effect of strange foods and too much drink, the hearth-wrenching of falling in love with a Romanian driller, tall, dark, and handsome as she describes him.
We read of her origins in Montana, of her first rash marriage at nineteen, of a decision to do something to improve the environment, of her dreams of a ranch and organic cattle in summer and a steak restaurant in Arizona in the winter, and mostly of her day to day activities on the mine. The primary activity of which appears to be dealing with spills of mercury, cyanide, and gasoline. Interspersed with trying to keep dusty roads watered, sediment ponds collecting silt, and channels lined—for the locals would steal the plastic lining and then complain about sediment in the streams.
We read of her daily office routine, so typical of an engineer on a distant mine: dealing with consultants who charge too much; negotiating with head-office staff who do not really know the mine and its country; trying to get budget from The Mothership to do what has to be done, sending e-mails to colleagues, who are friends and enemies. In her case there is one major difference: she is a young, bubbly gal, and is thrown into a predominantly male environment. This environment is also one too familiar to those of us who visit distant mines: ex-pats and locals, young men looking for money and marriage, old men close to retirement, who go back home at irregular intervals, and who eat bad food, smoke and drink to much, and relax with an occasional weekend in the local village and a meal at the best restaurant. They grow cynical and distant, yet are attuned to every nuance of people and place and politics. What else is there to do? Lisa loves them all and writes about keeping up with them at parties and places. Although too frequently for scandal, she leaves and goes home early to a single bed.
She is not the romantic type. Although her best prose comes as she tells of her relationship with Alex, the tall, dark, and handsome Romanian. The romance comes to naught, but along the way we get some beautiful descriptions of the Peruvian countryside and the trips they take together. We get a glimpse of the woman inside the sparkling gal in jeans and blouse with the tousled hair, as she describes her emotions on dealing with the driller who has a lover and three-year old son back in Houston. This is a mere mining-camp fling at the end, but Lisa gives it a prose interest that transcends writing about flights, fights, and mine politics.
This is an unusual book. I know of none like it. It is an honest picture of a young American on a mine in South America. It is an honest picture of a mine in South America and the trials and troubles it faces, from NGOs who oppose, to locals who see the mine as a cash-cow, to politicians who stir up resentment against the mine to win elections. I just wish that all those sentimental journalists who visit mines and sit around with NGOs in colourful dresses around flower madelas would read this book to get the other side of the story, to get a full and comprehensive view of a mine. For Lisa is not an evil, a machination to destroy, part of an axis of wickedness. She is just a bright, honest, hardworking gal from Montana who is fulfilling her childhood dream to make the world a better place.
And her book is proof positive of her decency, ability, and hard work. She well deserves her appointment to Vancouver, and the advance up the corporate ladder it implies. She will go far. I wonder if we will get more books chronicling her rise? I certainly hope so , and urge you to read this one and any others she produces.