Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town

Overview

"Kelly McMasters grew up loving her blue-collar hometown of Shirley. A service-town to the glittering Hamptons on the east end of Long Island, the place, though hardscrabble, was full of strong, hard-working families and an abundance of natural beauty. Comforted by the rhythms of small-town life, Kelly and her neighbors were lulled into a sense of safety. But while they were going to work and school, setting off fireworks at Fourth of July barbecues, or jumping through sprinklers in summertime, a deadly combination of working class shame and the
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Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town

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Overview

"Kelly McMasters grew up loving her blue-collar hometown of Shirley. A service-town to the glittering Hamptons on the east end of Long Island, the place, though hardscrabble, was full of strong, hard-working families and an abundance of natural beauty. Comforted by the rhythms of small-town life, Kelly and her neighbors were lulled into a sense of safety. But while they were going to work and school, setting off fireworks at Fourth of July barbecues, or jumping through sprinklers in summertime, a deadly combination of working class shame and the environmental catastrophe of a nearby leaking nuclear laboratory began to boil over." "This toxic helix reared its head again and again in the 1980s and 90s, as Kelly and her family watched neighbors become ill and die, the nuclear laboratory was proclaimed a Superfund site, and, in a bizarre attempt to construct an entirely new identity, Shirley tried to change its own name. But there would be no tabula rasa for this town." Once imagined as a Town of Flowers by its hopeful founder, Kelly charts Shirley's tragic slide deeper and deeper into neglect. But even as its natural beauty disintegrates in the face of indifference and disease, the town's most precious resource - its people - may yet be salvaged. Welcome to Shirley is the story of one young woman's ability to find beauty in the most unlikely places, and one small American town's fight for survival.
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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
McMasters marshals the facts and articulates feelings with eloquence and drama, telling stories of personal suffering to expose crimes against the public, and nature itself.
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 1980s when she was four 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 despite the dangers posed to the growing community. The waste from nuclear experiments, leaked into the adjacent rivers and aquifers for decades, and the author ploddingly traces the seepage into private wells. Intermittently, McMasters summons considerable research and critical powers, yet the litany of Shirley's resident misery resists an elegant synthesis.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

The Oprah Magazine O
McMasters tells the story . . . with passion and clarity. She also pulls off a small miracle in the telling, making rundown, unbeautiful Shirley a place of dignity, a place of heroic people and stubborn fighters, a place you'd be proud to call home.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Shirley is a small, working-class town on Long Island, NY. In the 1950s, Walter T. Shirley, a retired vaudeville huckster, established it as a place where people tired of big-city life could settle down and return to small-town values. McMasters called it home for most of her childhood. She takes the tools of memoir, local history, and science writing to create a disturbing yet loving portrait of the community. The town grew without a plan and never really took off; it faced constant problems with unemployment, poor services, and even an unhealthy atmosphere. Its backdrop is the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a government-funded facility that specializes in energy and medical research. In the 1990s, the lab mistakenly leaked tritium into Shirley's groundwater supply, sparking a lawsuit as many felt the town's unusual number of cancer victims were related to Brookhaven's experiments. McMasters's style simplifies the complicated subjects of environmental science and economics into easily understood explorations of her own life. The personal moments are powerful, particularly the illness and death of her next-door neighbor, caused by exposure to Brookhaven's chemicals. The book includes maps and references that expand on the information-packed narrative. Readers with an interest in the environment will be haunted by much that's in here, while McMasters's love for Shirley might spur some to appreciate and even protect their own hometown.-Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA

Kirkus Reviews
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 therandom 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. Agent: Anna Stein/Irene Skolnick Agency
From the Publisher

"Powerful...debut explores the author's happy childhood next to a controversial nuclear laboratory that leaked toxic waste into a Long Island aquifer. McMasters follows up this moving material with pages that delve into case-study numbers and scientific quotes ... Sincere and expertly researched."Kirkus Reviews

"All places are mute till someone speaks for them—this book bears marvelous, scalding witness to the kind of horror that's been repeated in so many spots that we've almost gone numb. But no one will be numb after reading this account."—Bill McKibben

"Welcome to Shirley is an uplifting and disturbing tour of deep nostalgia for home and an entrenched institution that earns its designation as a Superfund site. McMasters slips along the fine edge between the personal and the journalistic; between profound nostalgia—she loves this place, and longs for it—and an adult reckoning with the realities of her gritty town. McMasters' voice is devastating in its clarity and urgency and great tenderness."—Meredith Hall, author, Without a Map

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586484866
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 4/21/2008
  • Pages: 336
  • Lexile: 1290L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


Kelly McMasters' essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Newsday, Elle Décor, Metropolis, and Time Out New York, among others. She teaches writing at Columbia University and mediabistro.com and is the co-director of the KGB Nonfiction Reading Series in the East Village. She lives in Manhattan and northeast Pennsylvania with her husband, the painter Mark Milroy.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 1, 2009

    A Most Compelling, Fact-based Story

    I could not put this book down!! The book starts out as a poignant story of a typical Long Island childhood (one that touched my heart and filled me with memories of my own childhood on Long Island), that, by chapter 3, runs parallel to the story of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and its negative effects to our environment. The story is both heartwarming and chilling and McMaster's writing style is captivating!!! I have referred this book to several people already who also felt as I did about it! What a story!!! It makes one feel the need to get involved in environmental advocacy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2009

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