Most readers will have never heard of Shirley, a small, working-class town located 65 miles outside of New York City. But essayist Kelly McMasters, whose work has appeared in publications like the New York Times and The Washington Post, called Shirley home for most of her childhood. Her first book takes the tools of memoir, local history and science writing to create a disturbing yet loving portrait of her childhood home.
The town of Shirley began in the 1950’s when Walter T. Shirley, a retired Vaudeville huckster, established it as a place for people tired of big city life to settle down and return to small town values. But Shirley was a town that grew without a plan and never really took off; it faced constant problems with unemployment, poor services and even an unhealthy atmosphere. In the town’s backdrop is the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a government-funded facility that specializes in energy and medical research. In the 1990’s the lab mistakenly leaked tritium into Shirley’s groundwater supply, sparking a lawsuit as many felt the town’s unusual numbers 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 revisited by McMasters are powerful and haunting, 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 already information-packed narrative.
This was a review I agonized over. Individually each chapter is well written, thoughtful and meaningful. But the separate sections don't quite tie together, or at least they didn't for me. The chapters flip back and forth from memoir to historical essay to science writing, but it's hard to tell what big point McMasters wants us to take away. It's partly my own fault, my own narrative brain that craves a rising action, climax and epilogue with most everything I read. I wanted to see McMasters doing something to improve her town. But what we end up with is reportage, a book that exposes the world to all the hardships Shirley has endured over the last fifty years. If you go in expecting and accepting this her book will probably be a better read.
There's one thing I never questioned, though. McMasters still loves this town. It comes across so well that it might spur some readers to appreciate and even protect their own hometown. And any book that does that holds a power that makes it well worth reading.