The subtitle of Kelly McMasters' Welcome To Shirley: A Memoir From An Atomic Town refers to the national nuclear facility in close proximity to her Long Island hometown, and the horrors it visited upon the population, but it might as well also describe her upbringing. McMasters somehow waxes rhapsodic in this bittersweet chronicle of small-town life and scientific irresponsibility, whose sentimentality sets it apart from similar accounts.
The town of Shirley seemed like a safe haven to McMasters, since her father, a golf pro and groundskeeper, had moved them from course to course each year. By the early '80s, the Levittown-esque development, designed to provide a second-home getaway for city dwellers, had evolved into a tight-knit blue-collar town where streets were blocked off for Fourth of July barbecues and kids were allowed free rein of the neighborhood in the summer. But it also sprung up cheek-by-jowl with the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a facility for nuclear physicists whose advisory board had suggested it be built at least 50 miles from human settlement. There was no mushroom cloud, no explosion, just a slow leak of radiation-polluted water into area wells, which caused locals in Shirley and the towns nearby to develop cancer at rates far higher than geographically probable, particularly brain tumors, breast cancers, and acute leukemia in children. In one unforgettable moment, the author describes asking her fourth-grade class for money for her sick "best friend," a neighbor's father who worked at the Brookhaven plant.
McMasters name-checks A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, but the real beauty of Welcome To Shirley lies in her ability to evoke her childhood, idyllic in every way except one. That gathering storm is never fully obscured, but the picture she draws is so compelling that the book bumps and skips a bit when the science of Brookhaven's toxic leaks kicks in, in the book's second half. Likewise, accounts of other tragedies which befell residents of the town—from a teenage girl left for dead in a marsh at the edge of town to the crash of TWA Flight 800 in the nearby Long Island Sound—pull focus from the central environmental disaster, which is certainly terrible enough in scale by itself. Still, her exhaustive sifting through medical and scientific evidence for what happened to Shirley is admirable, as is the fortitude with which she returns to her hometown for a critical look.