Sunday, January 21, 2018
Books

Book review: Rachel Carson's legacy in 'On a Farther Shore' by William Souder

Quick: How many nuclear warheads were detonated above-ground by 1963?

If your answer was something just north of two, I wouldn't blame you. I wasn't yet born then myself, and the idea of nuclear bombs exploding above Nevada is hard to fathom. The answer, I learned in the opening chapter of William Souder's new biography of Rachel Carson, is more than 500. The United States was responsible for about 200 of those.

The story of Rachel Carson's life is the story of an era that is quite recent, but also strangely distant from our own, in which the twin threats of nuclear fallout and chemical use were the subject of national debate. Souder makes this plain in the opening scene, with a reporter asking President John Kennedy about growing concern over the use of the pesticide DDT. He responded that his administration was looking into it, "particularly, of course, since Miss Carson's book."

The scene highlights an equally remarkable aspect of the times in which Carson lived. A woman could write a book about the dangers posed by a new generation of pesticides, and that book would be so widely read and debated that the president didn't even have to mention its title, Silent Spring. Everyone was talking about Miss Carson's book. It is hard to envision, in today's crowded media landscape, any book capturing the nation's attention in the same way.

This is the great strength of On a Farther Shore. Without overstating the point, Souder draws a portrait of cultural and political life in the middle of the 20th century and places Carson squarely at the center of it. Imagine: In 1951, a little-known field biologist publishes a poetic and immaculately researched account of oceans and the life they contain, employing a narrative that begins over 2 billion years ago, encompasses the birth of the moon and proceeds straight through to modern times, and The Sea Around Us rises to the top of the bestseller list and sits there for 39 weeks.

It was a different time for science, and a different time for science writers. Today's writers might cheer as they read about Carson coolly declining her publisher's requests that she give interviews and attend book signings: Such distractions would be shortsighted, "as her work could go forward only if she could maintain her life as it had been before The Sea Around Us." If blogging for the Huffington Post and maintaining a Twitter account had also been among her publisher's expectations, would Silent Spring have been written at all?

Souder makes it clear that Carson had enough distractions as it was. She'd worked as a government biologist and writer from 1936 until 1952, when sales of her book allowed her to quit her job and write full time. She bought a plot of land near Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and had a summer cottage built on it. It was there that she met her neighbors, Stan and Dorothy Freeman, and began a romantic relationship with Mrs. Freeman that lasted the rest of Carson's life.

The women's letters were unambiguously passionate: In 1954, Carson wrote to Freeman, "But oh darling, I want to be with you so terribly that it hurts!" While her husband napped, Freeman wrote a letter from another bedroom in her house, telling Carson that she was writing from "the corner that belongs in my heart only to you — you know where and why." In spite of the heated language, Souder suggests that sex "seems not to have been part of their relationship, or at least not an essential feature of it." (If someone has done a study of the number of "romantic friendships" between women that biographers assume to be platonic, as compared to similar friendships between men, I'd like to know about it. I hope such women were far less prim than their biographers assume.)

Mrs. Freeman was not her only distraction. As Carson began work on her book on pesticides in 1958, her mother, with whom she'd been living, died. This left Carson as the sole caregiver for her young great-nephew, Roger, whose own mother, Carson's niece, had also died recently.

Carson's work was further slowed by her determination to demonstrate a link between pesticides and cancer, something that was not easy to prove at the time. In 1960, as she was pursuing this question, she discovered two masses in her left breast and began a battle against cancer that lasted until her death, four years later, at the age of 56. The irony of writing about cancer while she was ill from it herself, and of undergoing radiation treatment as she was drawing parallels between the dangers of radioactive fallout and massive DDT spraying, was not lost on her. She kept her illness a secret from all but her closest friends, fearing that disclosure would give her critics ammunition to question her motivation in writing the book.

Even the cancer's progression and her efforts to continue working in spite of it conjure up the times in which she lived. She learned, too late, that doctors hadn't told her the truth about her initial diagnosis, perhaps believing that she wasn't capable of making informed decisions about her own treatment. And even as the cancer recurred, she managed an extraordinary volume of daily correspondence with scientists whose research might support the idea that pesticides were carcinogenic.

Carson didn't finish navigating these challenges until 1962, when at last she published Silent Spring, setting off an extraordinary national debate. On a Farther Shore ends as it begins — with President Kennedy working toward an end to nuclear testing and contemplating the dangers of pesticides.

Carson didn't live long enough to see the ban on DDT that resulted from her work (and she actually never advocated a total ban), but in Souder's telling she was a quintessential woman of her time, juggling the demands of a family, a complicated love affair, an illness, and a high-profile career, and somehow managing to sit down in the center of it and get her work done.

Comments
‘Year in Provence’ author Peter Mayle dies at 78

‘Year in Provence’ author Peter Mayle dies at 78

Peter Mayle, whose international bestseller A Year in Provence sent countless tourists to the vineyards and lavender fields of Southern France, has died.In an email, Mr. Mayle’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, reported that he died Thursday in a hospital...
Published: 01/18/18

Events: Bob Woodward to speak at Mahaffey

Book TalkAuthor and journalist Roy Peter Clark (Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer) will lead a workshop, "How to Read Like a Writer," at 2 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5.Bob Woodward ...
Published: 01/18/18
Notable: Books from those countries

Notable: Books from those countries

NotableBooks from those countriesHere are books by immigrants from some of the countries recently disparaged by the president. Americanah (Anchor) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a brilliant novel set in this country and in the author’s native Nigeria,...
Published: 01/18/18
Review: Tim Dorsey’s ‘The Pope of Palm Beach’ reveals a sweeter side of Serge Storms

Review: Tim Dorsey’s ‘The Pope of Palm Beach’ reveals a sweeter side of Serge Storms

It’s an odd thing to say about a book in the Serge Storms series, but The Pope of Palm Beach is really kind of sweet.Serge might not want to hear that. He does, after all, kill people, in highly creative ways, when he’s not in manic pursuit of his pa...
Published: 01/18/18
‘Fire and Fury’ burns up bestseller lists

‘Fire and Fury’ burns up bestseller lists

When author Michael Wolff was interviewed on the Today show about his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Savannah Guthrie asked him how he felt about President Donald Trump’s attacks on it. Wolff responded, "Where do I send the box of ...
Published: 01/17/18

Events: Writers in Paradise features Banks, Lippman, more

Book TalkThe Writers in Paradise evening readings continue this week. All readings will take place in the Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Books will be available for purchase on site. All readings are free and o...
Published: 01/11/18
Notable: Books on Trump, one year in

Notable: Books on Trump, one year in

NotableOne year inWith the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration approaching, here are new books about him. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Henry Holt) by Michael Wolff is the incendiary look at the administration that provoke...
Published: 01/11/18
Andre Dubus III reads to ‘sink more deeply’ into the human condition

Andre Dubus III reads to ‘sink more deeply’ into the human condition

NightstandAndre Dubus IIIEckerd College’s Writers in Paradise conference takes place this week, and one of the returning faculty members is Andre Dubus III. Dubus is the author of six books, including Bluesman, Townie and two novels turned films, The...
Published: 01/11/18
Steph Post’s Florida noir ‘Walk in the Fire’ a sizzling sequel to ‘Lightwood’

Steph Post’s Florida noir ‘Walk in the Fire’ a sizzling sequel to ‘Lightwood’

In Steph Post’s new novel, Walk in the Fire, there’s a young aspiring criminal with a gift for astute observation. Asked to describe the tiny Central Florida town of Silas, where much of the book takes place, he says, "You drive through and it’s like...
Published: 01/11/18
Former Times columnist Klinkenberg named Florida Folk Heritage Award winner

Former Times columnist Klinkenberg named Florida Folk Heritage Award winner

Raise a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and toast former Tampa Bay Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg. This week, he was announced as one of three 2018 winners of the Florida Folk Heritage Awards.The awards honor outstanding folk artists and folk ...
Published: 01/10/18