This is a riveting tale of environmental contamination and one man’s struggle for answers and justice.
Nick Bran is a middle-aged professor at a community college, brilliant at his work and beloved by his students but with an anger at life’s injustices fueled by his stormy childhood and the near ruination of his own career. Nick is in remission from leukemia as the book opens, taking soil and water samples near a now disused chemical plant. When a corpse is found Nick, is sickened but not surprised that the body appears to have been eaten away by chemicals.
What Nick knows is that Hometown Chemical may have packed up and left, but what they left behind was contaminated water and soil. There are more cases of cancer in Nick’s town then there are car accidents, and Nick is determined to get answers.
So begins the story and Nick’s struggle to find out as much as he can, including trespassing on others’ property in order to gain samples to be tested. Nick is zealous in his pursuit but seemingly alone in his beliefs. He alienates his wife, who does not understand his obsession, and his kids are distant from him, not even knowing that there father has suffered from leukemia.
Enter Sandy Katz, a young woman new to teaching, idealistic and determined to be the best teacher possible. She teaches Nick’s son and, trying to improve her position in the school, takes on a coaching position which teams her with Nick.
They form a bond almost straight away that is touching and difficult to describe; though they have an affair, the relationship is grounded in friendship. It is a contrast of two polar opposites: Sandy young and idealistic, hopeless at teaching but oh so keen, and Nick the world-weary cynic, ready for battle.
What brings them together is the alarming number of children with cancer. Though something tells Sandy she should stay out of it, she cannot forget the faces of the children she teaches struggling with death in the family or with illness themselves.
So together Sandy and Nick set out to battle the big guns, determined to save lives and acquire justice. Sandy’s neighbors, children from a poor home with little hope, do their bit to help Nick and Sandy expose the chemical company in unexpected ways.
The complexities of human relationships feature prominently in this story as the tale is told from multiple points of view. Each character is well-written and multifaceted. Nick is imperfect and makes many mistakes; he seems to hug his bitterness to him like a long-lost child, yet we cheer him on at every corner. His relationship with Sandy and his wife are both loving ones.
Other characters help to make this story as well. Nick’s wife is sympathetic, even if she does not give him quite the support he expects. Her affair with the powerful real estate developer and chief opponent to Nick’s crusade, Marc Martineau, is understandable even as it is considered a betrayal.
This book is powerful on so many levels. If you can get past a corporation being so greedy as to think nothing of poisoning people, then you have to face the fact that most people in the town want nothing said or done, too worried about property prices falling to consider those who are dying around them.
The book really gets into gear as Nick and Sandy take more and more samples and find more and more data. The map of the area with pushpins of different colors representing children or adults who are suffering or dead that covers one of Sandy’s walls gets more and more overloaded, and the reader can imagine what a pretty effect it would be to have so many colors sprinkled over a wall - such a contrast to what is represents, for every pin represents a person suffering needlessly.
Nick’s own physical suffering once his cancer returns is poignant and gripping. The reader may feel ill, so real are descriptions of the horror he endures. When the reader contemplates what the chemical company has done to these people as well as the general sense of apathy in the community, anger wells up. Nick, for all his faults, is really delivered up as a true hero.
Dirt Cheap is vivid and powerful and highly recommended.
Lyn Killer-Lachmann is editor in chief of Multicultural Review. She is has written and edited multicultural works including text books, reference books and books for young readers. Dirt Cheap is her first novel. She lives in Albany, New York.