MOTHER COUNTRY by Marilynne Robinson
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More formidable and incendiary than Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, this includes an agitated report on the Sellafield complex--Britain's government-run plant that reprocesses the world's plutonium and other ""hot"" elements, recycling the best-quality extractions and pumping the radioactive rest into the sea. Robinson (the novel Housekeeping, 1981) was on sabbatical in England when she stumbled on a newspaper account that piqued her interest, then stirred her sense of outrage. Leukemia rates for community children were unusually high; plant workers stricken with peculiar cancers were rarely given compensation; an official clean-up of toxic spume on nearby beaches was conducted secretly. As Robinson followed a trail of strangely worded articles, useless data, and ""lost"" reports, she became mystified by the astonishing paradox of such an acutely antisocial policy: a government poisoning its own land, sea, and air for money. The first half of this alarmed and angry book looks into British history for the sources of this attitude, and finds antecedents in the Poor Laws and succeeding legislation, in early and postwar industrial practices, and, most recently, in the Thatcher government. Robinson soundly denounces nearly everyone mentioned here, including Greenpeace members and the American press (""a tourist bus mentality""), in a relentlessly vigorous prose that is as possessing as that in Housekeeping. Here, however, the absence of any clearly discernible organization and the attacks on British cultural assumptions nearly get in the way of her message. The world's largest source of radioactive contamination, Sellafield continues as an accident-prone, poorly maintained operation, polluting without genuine safety standards, winked at by international watchdogs, violating decency and common sense. The risk enlarges as countries permit the transport of both wastes and reconstituted materials by plane, by ship, by truck. ""The greatest threat to the world,"" Robinson writes, is riot ""a decision still to be made. . .the decision to engage in nuclear warfare. Sadly, the troth is quite otherwise. The earth has been under nuclear attack for almost half a century."" Robinson reserves her few sanguine words for the final paragraph, enjoining others to recognize the menace, to name and confront ""the grosser forms of evil"" encountered here. A gravely unsettling book.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1989
ISBN: 0374526591
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux