This is a book you don't want to be true, written in a style that blends the hardest of facts with the best aspects of a novel, spinning a tale of trauma and terror that underscores the worst aspects of that good word, Progress.
Kelly McMasters was happy to move to Shirley, Long Island, as a small child, after a toddlerhood spent constantly shifting as her
golf-pro father looked for work. After many unstable housing options, the family was able to rent and then buy a home in Shirley. But the costs of living in Shirley were hidden and deadly, and the clock was ticking. McMasters paints a picture of an ideal childhood playing with kids on the crowded block while her father finally settled on the life of a salesman so the family could put down roots in Shirley. It was a boom time economically, and a time when neighbors helped neighbors. Kelly's family borrowed a $1,000 down payment from a pal on the same block and were able to pay it back in a year. Things looked good even though it was obvious that Shirley, perched on Long Island at the periphery of the posh region known as the Hamptons, was an ignored and deteriorating lower-middle-class suburb.
What first gave Shirley life was the entrepreneurial spirit of a man named Walter T. Shirley, who rose from humble origins as the child of a streetcar conductor to become a developer of hundreds of acres of prime vacation land on Long Island. Shirley was one of his earliest creations, a town whose home sites and tract houses were advertised with a poster depicting a dancing mermaid and a bevy of tropical flowers scattered on an idyllic beach. Well, it wasn't exactly on the beach, and the flowers bloomed with an irradiated glow, as it turned out, because Shirley was located within a few miles of Brookhaven National Laboratory, where the deadly substance tritium was used in various highly questionable experiments. The nuclear strategies designed to fend off attacks by the Russians became an effective weapon against the innocent citizens of Shirley, whose water supply was tainted with radiation.
The guy who lent Kelly's father the money for a down payment and who worked at Brookhaven was the first visible casualty in Kelly's childhood universe, succumbing to an highly invasive cancer that hit his brain and then his lungs. As Kelly grew up, went to Vassar and maintained her contact with Shirley and her parents, she began to see the fault lines developing. People had cancer, others merely a proliferation of benign but no less frightening tumors. Some children contracted very rare forms of cancer, and many more than the average number of women suffered and died from breast cancer. Kelly saw that some of the citizens of Shirley (which had attempted without success to change its name to remove its pariah stigma) became activists, quixotically believing they could slay the Brookhaven dragon.
When changes came, they were too little and too late for a generation of Shirley's first settlers. The book highlights the struggles of honest, plain people to permeate an immoveable bastion of government secrecy built on the now-outmoded philosophy that evil in the name of the greater good is not evil and shouldn't be questioned.
You will read this book, as I did, with a sense of the doom that hangs over Shirley. McMasters constructs her story increment by increment, as children play happily in the swimming pools of childhood, basking in polluted waters.