Lamont sets her contemporary cautionary tale in where revenues from the local slaughterhouse support a whole small town, a “company town” painfully aware that their economic survival depends on the plant. Even local businesses depend on D&M, their customers increased by the numbers working in the meat packing plant. But all is not well. A local man contacts an animal welfare agency, The Kinship, with news of a damning video of illegal activities inside the plant, as well as a conversation between officials that bolsters the accusations of cruel and unusual punishment beyond what the law allows. When animal rights activist Jude Brannock comes to town, she finds it is too late to interview Frank Marino. It is the day of his funeral.
Though there are rumors that Frank sneaked a camera into the plant, the prevailing story is that his years of physical pain from on the job injuries finally drove Frank to commit suicide. With no video to validate any other scenario, Jude has no way to prove what Marino suspected, or any reason to remain in the town. Still, her early explorations around the D&M grounds validate Jude’s suspicions of what is happening behind the locked gates of the plant. Unwilling to give up, she attempts to rack Marino’s last days, questioning the convenience of a suicide just when the man is prepared to expose the atrocities at the plant. Taking a room in a local motel, Jude wanders through the town, only to be quickly identified and branded as one of those environmentalists who make trouble for working folks.
Lamont gives her protagonist the requisite characteristics of one who elects such a path in life: a passion for her work, the resourcefulness of an investigator and the instincts to ferret out those willing to talk, at least behind closed doors. But once the word goes out to avoid any conversations with the outsider, it is nearly impossible for Brannock to get anyone to share information, from Frank’s wife, Verna, to “Juan,” who risks a conversation until he is spotted by one of the plant officials. It is through peripheral conversations that Jude is able to put together a scenario of what happened to Frank and what has been business as usual at the slaughterhouse. Only through the involvement of a discontented teenage girl does Jude learn her way around a tightly controlled environment. Jude’s only companion a rescue dog, hers is a difficult, nearly impossible task, forcing the plant owners to take responsibility and follow the law.
The novel is salted with the usual problems: devious employers protecting their bottom line, workers terrified of losing jobs, a way of life entrenched in a town too weary to stand up for itself, an outsider viewed as a threat. The actions taken to hide the truth are illegal, often violent and not unexpected, an institutionalized method of doing business with powerful lobbies to block any meaningful reforms in Washington. The descriptions of conditions inside the slaughterhouse are disgusting, shocking and repulsive, inhumane conditions rife when supposedly dumb animals are processed for human fodder.
While Jude Brannock represents the futility of changing such a system, people only moved to action when forced to confront atrocities, there is little else to awaken the public’s consciousness save the stories of those who keep flailing at the windmill of big business and big profit. Often truly painful to read, the public must be made aware of conditions sanctioned by laws that don’t go far enough to protect either slaughtered animals or the workers just as tied to “the chain.” Without constraints on the excesses of capitalism, democracy is made ineffective—and worse, hopeless. Lamont addresses these inequities, couched in the stories of family caught in the middle.