Powerful though flawed debut explores the author’s happy childhood next to a controversial nuclear laboratory that leaked toxic waste into a Long Island aquifer.
Freelance writer McMasters (Writing/Columbia Univ.) recalls growing up as a curious only child in Shirley, a service town outside the affluent Hamptons. Drinking in a bar with two childhood friends in 2005, she explains in her introduction, she was struck by what they didn’t talk about: “the year the wildlife refuge near our houses became off limits, or how the neighborhood fathers used to say they glowed in the dark.” Flashback to 1981, when four-year-old Kelly, her hardworking father and beautiful mother arrived at their new home in Shirley, surrounded by vacant, vandalized and boarded-up houses. The McMasters bonded with the small community and learned about how the town was built, the origins of its name and the history of nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. As teenagers, McMasters and her girlfriends snuck through the lab’s security fence to smoke and explore their former sledding hill, which was littered with condoms and beer bottles. They didn’t know that the unintended consequences of 40 years of nuclear research, which comprised various studies on cancer and multiple Nobel Prizes in physics, would be radioactive water and chemicals that contaminated Shirley’s soil and groundwater. In 1989, the year the author entered eighth grade, Brookhaven lab was named a Superfund site, and “cancer had become a constant in my life, moving from something that happened to a few people I knew to part of daily conversation.” Years later at Vassar College, she confronted her fear of getting cancer, a family member’s illness and the random deaths of some of her peers. Regrettably, McMasters follows up this moving material with pages that delve into case-study numbers and scientific quotes instead of further exploring her memories and feelings.
Sincere and expertly researched, but as the story moves away from personal narrative into statistics, history and science lessons, it becomes less compelling.