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Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town Hardcover – April 22, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist McMasters's look at the toxic relationship between Brookhaven National Laboratory and the neighboring Long Island towns careens into a tedious memoir of childhood. McMasters moved to the unpromising working-class town of Shirley in the early 1970s when she was five and her golf pro father got a job with Hampton Hills Golf & Country Club. For a child without siblings, the street teeming with young families was a magical place to grow up, and McMasters made lifelong girlfriends. However, the town was economically depressed, despite its optimistic founding by Walter T. Shirley in the early 1950s. And Shirley was in the shadow of the top-secret Brookhaven atomic research laboratory, whose nuclear reactor was completed in 1965 regardless of the dangers posed to the growing community. Tritium, the waste from nuclear experiments, leaked into the adjacent rivers and aquifers for decades, and the author ploddingly traces the seepage into private wells. The town flirted with a name change to bolster property values, just as residents were plagued by alarming cases of cancer. Indeed, thanks to the Long Island Breast Cancer Research Project of 1993, a cluster of cases was discovered within a 15-mile radius of Brookhaven. Intermittently, McMasters summons considerable research and critical powers, yet the litany of Shirley's resident misery resists an elegant synthesis. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

McMasters’ early years were peripatetic, making the family’s decision to settle down in scrappy blue-collar Shirley, Long Island, momentous. Here, on the edge of a wildlife preserve, they secured their first home and for the first time became part of a community. But all was not well in the early 1980s in this shoddily constructed small town, or at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. Journalist McMasters writes with precision, affection, and venom about the history of her hometown, chronicling the misdeeds of its speculator founder, William Turnbull Shirley; lovingly portraying neighbors; and indicting Brookhaven, a flawed nuclear facility and “one of the nation’s most hazardous waste offenders,”  for allowing tritium and other radioactive substances to fatally contaminate the area’s groundwater and soil. So high were the cancer rates in Shirley, a street was dubbed Death Row, and cancer survivors launched a fierce battle against the federal government. Joining the growing circle of environmental health memoirists, McMasters marshals the facts and articulates feelings with eloquence and drama, telling stories of personal suffering to expose crimes against the public, and nature itself. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; First Edition edition (April 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586484869
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586484866
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,577,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. Knecht on December 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I read some of the other reviews, people claiming that the facts in the story about the connection between the Brookhaven Laboratory and Shirley were incorrect, or missrepresented. So, before I bought the book, I paused.

BUT, now having finished the book, I am glad I bought it. I never have lived on Long Island, and I have never been to Shirley, so I can't say that I know that each fact Kelly McMasters presents is correct, but I can say that I enjoyed her argument, and her story.

A lot of literature about the environment, or fighting the government, is dry, and lacking a real human connection. Not this book. I loved that although Kelly offers straight facts about various contaminants, and spills in the areas, she also introduces you to real people. People who you feel a connection to, people you feel real empathy for when they leave the story.

Reading this book will not give you a scientific answer behind the involvement of the Brookhaven Laboratory and Shirley's high rate of cancer. But it will possibly inspire you to do a little research, at least it did for me.

At the end of the day, it peaked my curiosity, and most of all made me interested in the people. She never claimed to have all the answers to a towns problems, simply the platform to tell their story.
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Format: Hardcover
I read this book on a plane to Switzerland. Couldn't put it down. Kelly McMasters is a great writer. I felt sad and outraged that the Brookhaven people wouldn't admit the role the plant played in the obviously strange cancer rates in the area. McMasters does a great job combining factual information with beautiful prose and evocative descriptions of the town and it's people. I learned alot reading this book. About the gross negligence and indifference to human lives that government and corportations are capable of. About how beauty can be found even in the most unlikely places. And mostly about how strongly a person can love where they are from, even when there is seemingly nothing there to love. The reason this book strikes a chord is because it is not just another "big bad corporation vs. the people" story. It is the very human way McMasters describes the people and nature of Shirley that makes the book so much more. She relates how, little by little, as she and the town grow up/older, they both lose their innocence to outside forces. Is it just me, or do some of these other reviewers sound like former Brookhaven employees? Don't let those reviews dissuade you..read this. You'll probably see a little bit of your own hometown in it.
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Format: Hardcover
My family has owned a house in Mastic Beach since the late 70's, primarily as a vacation home. I remember all the summers spent out there, it had so much promise, but it never materialized. Reading the book brought back many of the good memories as well as the bad, I could close my eyes and see Handy Pantry again and taste Onofrio's pizza. Not being able to drink the water, don't stay in the shower too long, etc, etc. My sister who spent the most time out at the house recently passed away from breast cancer, no family history, my aunt who had a house up the block passed away with breast cancer, uncle who also had a house up the block passed away from cancer.....needless to say, everyone knew that there was a problem, but the big machine can't be questioned. I will never go out to the house again and will never take my kids there.
I sent a copy of the book to my remaining 3 sisters and 1 brother hoping that they will never go to the house again.
I don't really care whether or not the basic history facts may or may not be 100% accurate. The fact remains that BNL polluted the area with toxic waste and nobody did anything about it.
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading this book and it is an easy read. I usually get bored mid-way through a book. This book kept be interested with the mix of her personal stories and factual information about the radioactive pollution that is affecting people in the Suffolk County area. The lab sits on top of the sole aquifer in the area and is pumped into the homes of families within about a twenty mile radius.
I am particularly interested because I live in Shirley's sister town, Mastic Beach. My mother in-law lived there for 20+ years, has no history of breast cancer in her family, never smoked, never abused alcohol and has been in and out of remission from breast cancer. Her oncologist said she is a 'rare' case because she never abused these things and it does not run in her large family. But it does not seem that they took into consideration where she was living.
I remember watching the Montel Williams show when they did a piece with Alec Baldwin in the late 90's about the 13 rare childhood cancers in Suffolk county. They were 1 in a million (or higher) cancers and when you viewed the map you could see where the children lived created a circle around Brookhaven Lab. McMasters speaks of a child in the book that has a one in 4 million case of cancer and how her father finds out there are 28 other cases of it in Suffolk County.
McMasters speaks of the danger this radioactive water poses in everyday life. Shocking revelation after shocking revelation are revealed: it's not just about drinking the water; hand-washing clothes (for instance)the agitation of the clothes in the water releases the water into the air for the person to inhale and absorb the isotopes into the lungs and bloodstream.
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