Book News: Death in Mud Lick by Eric Eyre

Reviewed by Cindy Ellis

A book on the opioid crisis might seem a stretch for readers interested in issues of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  In the book no mountains are lopped off, no swaths of trees are clear cut, no water is polluted, and no air is fouled.  Not exactly.  But, a number of Mountain State communities are besieged and ravaged.  

We care about communities here.  And we appreciated those who report the facts on threats to our communities.

Eric Eyre does this, for towns in our southern counties and in our eastern panhandle, and more.  In the early 2000’s, millions of addicting pain pills were shipped to us.  Our pharmaceutical records were mined and shared, and we were targeted.  Our doctors were courted and cajoled.  False claims were made for the insidious “remedies”.  Our pharmacists were fed misinformation and overwhelmed.  Some of our elected officials lied to us about their connection to the opioid assault.  We were being crushed.

No heroine nor hero rose to our defense.  

But…some very human individuals, some scarred and deeply flawed, tried to make things better.

Eric Eyre tells the story of their effort.  He is an excellent teller of tales and a perfectionist when pursuing facts.  

I had read the news stories of this matter.  I knew, loosely, how the story ended.  Even so, Eyre kept me reluctant to put the book down.  “And then what happened?” was the thought that restrained my hand.  He let me be transported.

Beyond mesmerizing writing, Death in Mud Lick offers more.  This review may be printed in October and before Election Day.  Some of those incumbent officials hoping for re-election are featured in the book.  A conscientious voter can find out about pain pill connections and our office holders, including Congressman David McKinley and particularly West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey.  

The side story of the tribulations of Charleston’s newspapers are told too.  We have long cherished the work of those reporters and columnists who made sure to tell the environmental side of current events. Eyre noted that Vivian Stockman, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said, “The Gazette actually covered both sides of issues, not just whatever side money is on.” But it is a changing world for print journalism and the decline of the Daily Mail and the Gazette are recounted with details and sympathy.

So, Eyre’s employer/newspaper was experiencing tough times while he was encountering difficulties in researching and recounting the opioid story.  He struggled with FOIA’s.  Our volunteers and allies also know the challenges in obtaining “public” information through Freedom of Information Act requests.  However, his perseverance led to court cases that did make the pertinent information public.  It could be understating to say that the chapters relating those courtroom scenes are riveting too.  

In sum, “Death in Mud Lick” tells of what may be seen as both a sadly familiar and a new kind of assault on our mountain communities.  It was, and is, another of the unfair battles, shot through with greed, that predominate our history.  Eric Eyre said, “The coal barons no longer ruled Appalachia.  Now it was the painkiller profiteers.”

Eric Eyre has made an important contribution to our understanding of our history.  We can be grateful.

The story behind the story:  Veteran WVHC member Dave Elkinton threw down a challenge for someone to write a review of this book by Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Eyre.  So she did.