Friday, May 23, 2008

A Little Bit of Controversy

A few weeks ago I reviewed the book Welcome to Shirley by Kelly McMasters. It's a non-fiction book that I had some misgivings about, mostly because it seemed to want to be both a history and a memoir without fully exploring either form. But If you look at the comments for the blog post you'll see someone named Ken Spooner mentioning a high number of factual errors in her work.

I've spent the last couple of days checking out Spooner's site, and a number of the claims do seem to check out in other sources. I'm not an expert on the town of Shirley, NY and don't really have the time to become one, but it does seem like the book is filled with lazy scholarship. At least that's what I'm thinking it is, rather than a more purposeful glossing over of details. It's a shame this book made it to print without a real fact-check, because I still think McMasters had her heart in the right place in trying to tell the story of this town. My guess is she really wanted to write a memoir but didn't have enough for full a book; the historical sections possibly came later to give a full page count. I could be wrong, but Spooner seems to agree with comments like this on his page:

I am reasonably certain it was witnessing as a young girl, the slow and painful death from cancer of her neighborhood girlfriend Tina's father Jerry, that inspired Kelly to write this book or set her main topic up of environmental stewardship. The true neighborhood good guy with a huge heart, it is her storytelling about Jerry that resonated the strongest with me.

This section Spooner describes is easily the most powerful in the book, and if McMasters had focused on her memories and the emotions behind them she probably would have created one hell of a book.

I was intrigued by this controversy of scholarship, because when I read the book I was surprised by the lack of citations in McMasters's work. Very little of her research was cited so I came away wondering how she pulled together her information for the more factual, less memoir sections. What I had in hand was a preview copy, so I emailed the publisher and was assured that a bibliography of her sources would be published with the final version. Yesterday I found a final version at my local bookstore and it still lacks a bibliography, giving validity to Spooner's claims and, frankly, making me feel guilty about reviewing the book for a major library publication. I'm not saying Spooner is right, and I'm not saying McMasters is right. But if you do read her book read it with some level of caution and decide for yourself.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I have to give you a lot of credit for this post. This book is so FULL of innuendo and twisted or misrepresented facts that any "real" journalist who has researched the history of Shirley and the cleanup at Brookhaven would cringe in horror for the state of the profession.

One tiny example - McMasters says she had to wait "three years" to get access to the "secret" Brookhaven Lab public reading room. First of all, that's ludicrous. As a journalist for a local paper, I visited the Lab many times on one-day or less notice to talk to people about the cleanup there - people who were happy to help me. More importantly, what McMasters leaves out is that all the documents in that reading room are duplicated in a reading room at the -- drum roll, please -- Mastics/Moriches/Shirley public library, which is open to all with no restrictions. Oh, and as Mr. Spooner notes, McMasters used to work there. Amazing.