Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review: Welcome to Shirley by Kelly McMasters

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.

welcome to shirley

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.



Ken Spooner said...

As someone who is a recognized historian and former resident of the Shirley area, I was truly looking forward to the arrival of this book. Ms. McMasters contacted me several years ago for both information and potential people to interview for it.

After reading it, I have to say about the only thing I can agree with is that what happened to the Shirley area is indeed a sad tale. But I am also saddened that Ms. McMasters, who is a talented writer, would use her talent to distort history to support her thesis. There are just TOO MANY factual errors and half truths here about the basic history of the town to be dismissed as just sloppy work. Because of that I can only say that her far bigger picture of the enviormental dangers both real and imaginary of having a nuclear facility looming in Shirley's back yard is greatly diminished. If you are interested in an in depth review with many of the books errors pointed out in detail just go to The Knapps Lived Here website and look on the left side of the main page in the green area. Or if this forum allows it, here is the link :

Hebdomeros said...

I actually wondered about this very thing when I read the book. The version I read was a preview copy for book reviewers and did not include a bibliography or much in the way of citations. I emailed the publisher to find out if either would be included in the final version, and was told all the research would be backed up with citations. I haven't found a final version in stores or in a library to verify this, but based on your comments it sounds like the quality of her research may be a little suspect.

Thank you for sharing the link; looking at the possible errors in the research is eye-opening. I may do a new posting about this issue after investigating a little more. If you're correct, it's a shame that Public Affairs Press let it go through.