Monday, August 4, 2008

Monday's Green Book Reviews: Welcome to Shirley by Kelly MacMasters (+ free book giveaway)

It's been a while since we reviewed here a book that was not a how-to guide, a children's book, a manifesto or an investigative tract about corn, oil or paper. This not a surprise, and illustrates well what Bill McKibben was saying in a grist essay more than three years ago, bemoaning the lack of suitably inspiring art for the green movement (thanks to Jeff McIntire-Strasburg for turning me onto this essay.)

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong about how-to guides, and in fact they are crucial right now, but art, which I consider the writing of a novel to be, has this special way of inspiring people in the right place and in the right time, in a way that not many how-to guides can ever aspire to.

From this perspective, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town by Kelly McMasters is a hybrid of a book. Part memoir, part historic and part investigative, it oscillating between three different narratives.

The first narrative is a personal memoir of the author growing up in Shirley, a small dead-end town on the South Shore of Long Island, New York. When her father, a down on his luck pro-golfer and ski coach, relocated their family yet again for a new job at a nearby Hamptons golf club, five years old Kelly was thrilled. McMasters' writing is very personal, sensitive and catchy, especially when describing her childhood. Her enthusiasm to the new town, neighborhood and people is easy to get into. Life for her are walks in the woods in the wildlife preserve just around the corner with her new best girlfriends, and discovering for the first time a sense of community in the tight knit mostly Italian neighborhood, with their perfectly normal quirky way of living. All things she never had before while on the road following her father's jobs. Especially endearing is her recalling of the community's celebration of 4th of July, with the tipsy dads setting off fireworks, and the kids crashing on the lawn after a day romping around the neighborhood's backyard swimming pools. This part is actually my favorite in the book, and I wish her telling of her older selves was quite as patient in its unfolding.

The other thread woven into the tale is the history of the town itself. It starts from the life of its founder, Walter T. Shirley, a young man in the city who gave up his dreams of show business on the New York vaudeville stage for a successful career as a real estate tycoon. Shirley was promoted by him as the “City of Flowers”, an affordable community close to nature with lots starting as low as $295. It was marketed to the urban working class as a dream within reach, with ads in Italian bringing in many buyers. However, similarly to the developer's stage dreams, Shirley's promise was never fulfilled. Lack of planning in the rush to build more and more left the town without a center and proper sewage, while the lack of easy beach access or any other visitor's attractions left the town undeveloped, neglected eventually and with a bad reputation.

The tension between the town's apparent lack of appeal, and McMasters' childlike fascination and inexplicable love for it is probably the most interesting aspect of the book. This tension is reinforced and multiplied once the third thread of story is introduced, and that is of the cancerous radioactive pollution emanating from the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratories complex, just 6 miles up the road. It was built in the 50's while the area was still considered remote from habitation, yet close enough from the leading research universities. However with the building of Shirley and other communities nearby, the laboratory's nuclear waster is now endangering the water resources of the whole region. And thus Cancer begins to play a major and constant role in the lives and deaths of the people of Shirley.

With active nuclear reactors on site up from the 50's and up to 2000 and a complete lack of proper community education and outreach until very recently, it is not a surprise that the laboratory dedicates a whole section of its website to contradicting and refuting McMasters book, and their the lab's role in the increased number of cancer cases in the communities around their laboratory site. They're still not really reaching out. For example, this is the best “apology” the book can get out of them:

The Laboratory acknowledges that its environmental stewardship in the past was very different from what it is today. During the last decade, Brookhaven has made great strides in cleaning up the environment and keeping it clean, and we work hard to be a good neighbor.” (From the Brookhaven website, Aug 4 2008)

The lab's communications department's choice of words and this use of inane speech makes me doubt very much their sincerity in being a good neighbor. Unfortunately for McMasters' circle of friends and acquaintances from the town, this “very different” environmental stewardship in the past may have caused deaths, broken up families, and broken up entire neighborhoods.

And that what makes her continuous love to the broken town a real surprise. At some point, she even considers seriously moving back there with her husband to start a family, but apparently and inexplicably (at least in the book) decides on Pennsylvania instead.

So does Welcome to Shirley qualify to McKibben's artistic eco call to arms? I sincerely think it does. McMasters is a gifted writer and I hope to read more of her work, and that her next book will continue to draw on ecological themes, while maybe being a work of fiction.

About the Book

Book's name: Welcome to Shirley

Author: Kelly McMasters

Publisher: Public Affairs (April, 2008)

Note: Back in April, Kelly McMasters worked with us balance out the books at her book launch event. Read her thoughts about working with Eco-Libris. We hope to have the pleasure of collaborating with her again in the future.


I'll be giving away my review copy, with a tree planted for it of course. How can you win? Suggest inspirational eco-themed fiction novels for people to read, and for me to review at the Eco-Libris blog. Also explain why do you think these books are suitable, and if you want to add your own mini-review, go ahead :). Submissions are accepted until Saturday, August 9,12PM EST. The winner will be announced the following day.

All the best,
Eylon Israely

“Plant a Tree for every Book you Read!”