NONFICTION: Atomic Childhood
Kelly McMasters, Welcome to Shirley (Public Affairs Books, 2008)
Kelly McMasters’s haunting new memoir, Welcome to Shirley, tells the story of a small Long Island community struggling with the unseen poison showered on their suburb by the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. It is a tragic, at times horrific tale—yet McMasters manages, with great grace and introspection, to deliver an eminently readable book of hope and strength.
McMasters begins with the tale of her family’s move to the town of Shirley, a development dating back to the 1950s and the egocentric mission of one Walter T. Shirley, a self-made man eclipsed in fame by others such as Robert Moses, but with a story worthy of its own book. The feeling of several books in one is pervasive throughout Shirley: McMasters skillfully weaves the sagas of her own parents, both struggling, proud people; of Shirley himself; and of the lives of her Long Island neighbors and a community terribly afflicted by what Shirley’s passion wrought.
The town of Shirley was originally intended as a vacation spot for working-class New Yorkers craving the sea and fresh air of the island, and was a goldmine for Walter T. The suburban sprawl of the 1950s changed the town rapidly, and without any notion of urban planning, Shirley had become a year-round community, its residents commuting not to Manhattan— as in Westchester, New Jersey and other parts of Long Island—but to the lesser-paying areas around Shirley and, most notably, the Brookhaven National Laboratory down the road.
McMasters’s family moves to Shirley when she is five years old, after her father is hired as a golf pro at the local club. Though the job doesn’t pan out for him, the McMasters find a warm-hearted community in Shirley, and they begin to put down roots. The young Kelly falls in love with her new friends and the freedom of small-town life. In Shirley, neighbors trade recipes and watch out for each other’s children; holidays are celebrated collectively and everyone seems kind and happy.
Things begin to change when Kelly is ten, however: a friend’s father, a longtime employee at Brookhaven, develops tumors throughout his body and dies a painful, slow death, turning into a shell of the strong, cheerful man the author adored. The neighborhood is stricken by this death, but it doesn’t end with him: more and more people develop tumors, lung cancer. By the time she is a teenager one in nine women in the area has been diagnosed with breast cancer. And people begin to suspect that this plague must have something to do with Brookhaven, and the waste it emits into the surrounding areas.
McMasters traces the epidemic through admirable research on the nuclear laboratory, the history of the community, and the story of her own family. Her mother launches a crusade to get drinking water pumped in from elsewhere. Breast cancer survivors struggle to gain the attention and support of local politicians. And meanwhile, people keep dying, and McMasters grows up, goes to college, and marries.
Welcome to Shirley is a stunning example of the damage inflicted by national science on common people in the nuclear age. We hear the stories occasionally, and take pause for a moment. Erin Brockovich, Chernobyl, Shirley—we all know this stuff happens. McMasters shines a light on a small community that, were it not for her and a few others, might never have made the papers. And in doing so, she has also given readers a beautiful story of her own coming-of-age in, as she puts it, a “nuclear town.”
Anna Wainwright is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.