By Kelly McMasters
234 pages. PublicAffairs.
The town of Shirley, on the East End of Long Island, has never been chic, and certainly never part of the fevered Hamptons summer scene, but to a 4-year-old and her hard-up young parents it did seem like a kind of paradise when they moved there in 1981. In Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town (PublicAffairs), Kelly McMasters charts how she came to understand that despite all she loved about Shirley (especially the loyalty of the neighborhood and the sense of open space and security she felt growing up there), it was somewhere to be ashamed of. More urgently, she learned that—all joking about Shirley's locals "glowing in the dark" aside—the acreage they lived on was the dumping site for three leaking nuclear reactors and countless chemical spills. Block by block, friend by friend, the number of cancer cases grows, including 16 local children diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that typically hits one in four million children a year. In one of the book's most riveting moments, Randy Snell, the father of a stricken child, finds an official report that concludes that the only known cause of his daughter's disease is "low-level radiation exposure." McMasters tells the story of families such as the Snells and her own—her mother had benign tumors removed from her thyroid and breast—with passion and clarity. She also pulls off a small miracle in the telling, making rundown, unbeautiful Shirley a place of dignity, a place of heroic people and stubborn fighters, a place you'd be proud to call home.