Welcome to Shirley – Kelly McMasters

I really, really wanted to like this book. I forget where I heard about it, but all I remembered when I saw it at the library was that it was written by a girl about my age, and was about growing up in Shirley (which is an area in Long Island, NY that I am very familiar with.)

From Publishers Weekly
Journalist McMasters’s look at the toxic relationship between Brookhaven National Laboratory and the neighboring Long Island towns careens into a tedious memoir of childhood. McMasters moved to the unpromising working-class town of Shirley in the early 1970s when she was five and her golf pro father got a job with Hampton Hills Golf & Country Club. For a child without siblings, the street teeming with young families was a magical place to grow up, and McMasters made lifelong girlfriends. However, the town was economically depressed, despite its optimistic founding by Walter T. Shirley in the early 1950s. And Shirley was in the shadow of the top-secret Brookhaven atomic research laboratory, whose nuclear reactor was completed in 1965 regardless of the dangers posed to the growing community. Tritium, the waste from nuclear experiments, leaked into the adjacent rivers and aquifers for decades, and the author ploddingly traces the seepage into private wells. The town flirted with a name change to bolster property values, just as residents were plagued by alarming cases of cancer. Indeed, thanks to the Long Island Breast Cancer Research Project of 1993, a cluster of cases was discovered within a 15-mile radius of Brookhaven. Intermittently, McMasters summons considerable research and critical powers, yet the litany of Shirley’s resident misery resists an elegant synthesis. (Apr.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

I felt like this book suffered from schizophrenia. On one hand, it wanted to be a memoir of childhood, and of growing up in a town that was almost designed for failure. Or the tragedies of the suburbs. I think that when it focused on that, it was good – but a little too flowery. But it held my attention, and I wanted to really feel it and know more.

But on the other hand, there was a lot about Brookhaven and how having this giant pollutant ended up killing a lot of people and shaping the town’s culture. Which would have been cool, except that it started getting pretty technical. It almost felt like two different books, and one of them I didn’t like, even though the subject matter was interesting.

Part of this just hit a little too close to home. A few years ago,  my 48 year old non-smoking, vegetarian, nutritionist hippie aunt died of lung cancer. A few years ago my dad was diagnosed with late stage Hodgkin’s (but is doing okay now.)  The block they grew up in Canarsie has a whole bunch of similar stories, and there appears to be a cancer cluster there. Some speculate it’s due to the power lines. I am convinced it’s definitely something environmental that is causing all this cancer.

In any case – I think the work McMasters did is important, and I always grew up close to the specter of Long Island’s breast cancer curse – but I just can’t say I really liked the book.


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