Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town

Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town

4.2 5
by Kelly McMasters
     
 

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Shirley seemed to be doomed from the beginning. Founded by a Vaudevillian huckster who touted it as a seaside haven despite the sand bar that blocks access to the shore, the town has been plagued by one disaster after another—a UFO, a childhood cancer cluster, and a mysterious federal nuclear laboratory in nearby Brookhaven that leaked toxic nuclear and

Overview


Shirley seemed to be doomed from the beginning. Founded by a Vaudevillian huckster who touted it as a seaside haven despite the sand bar that blocks access to the shore, the town has been plagued by one disaster after another—a UFO, a childhood cancer cluster, and a mysterious federal nuclear laboratory in nearby Brookhaven that leaked toxic nuclear and chemical waste into the aquifer from which the residents unknowingly drew their well water.

This is Kelly McMasters' account of growing up in a cursed town and loving it anyway, and of a girl's awakening to tragedy and to a sense of mission. Told in a deliciously engaging voice, Welcome to Shirley balances the bitter with the sweet, the funny with the infuriating, in an unforgettable story of working class Long Island.

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.

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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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781610397063
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
12/22/2015
Edition description:
Second Edition
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,208,497
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are saying about this

Abigail Thomas
With echoes of such great writers as Thornton Wilder and Edgar Lee Masters and Upton Sinclair, McMasters has written an eloquent love song to her home-town, and a scalding indictment of the powerful facility that brought fear and death to her neighbors. This is a great book about small town America. It should be required reading for us all. (Abigail Thomas, author of Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life)
Suzannah Lessard
This intimate portrait of hardscrabble Shirley, Long Island and the ways in which activities at nearby Brookhaven Lab affected its citizens shows through individual lives-and deaths-how environmental injustice works. Native Kelly McMasters combines a warm personal perspective with vigorous reportorial objectivity to tell this gripping story of the underside of the Promised Land. (Suzannah Lessard, author of Mapping the World)
Lydia Millet
The heartbreak of this story is in the small details, which leave a lingering sense of lives that might be forgotten if they were not recalled here. Both personal and political, and steadily compelling, Welcome to Shirley is a thoughtful, delicate elegy to an ideal. (Lydia Millet, author of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart)
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

Meredith Hall
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)
Suzanne Antonetta
Kelly McMasters delivers this all-American atomic town to us with a rare precision and beautiful nostalgia in the true Greek sense, a sickness for home. McMasters' is an American life as ordinary-and wholly remarkable-as our damaged industrial centuries: Norman Rockwell with his brush dipped in isotopes. (Suzanne Antonetta, author of Body Toxic)
Bill McKibben
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.

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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Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That's not even me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She sat on her couch with a lit cigarette in her mouth and turned on some punk music, and went through the station
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
kgranelli More than 1 year ago
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.