Tuesday, June 19, 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
5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

He might not have intended it, but Donald Trump has been good for book publishing.
Published: 06/15/18
What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

Neal ThompsonFor Father’s Day, we checked in with Neal Thompson from his Seattle office. In his new book, Kickflip Boys, Thompson weaves together a story on raising his two independent, passionate sons while giving us an honest look at the underbelly...
Published: 06/15/18
What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir

What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir "A Beautiful, Terrible Thing," reading?

Jen Waite It is June. Romance and weddings are in the air, and with that comes the paperback release of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite, 33. The book, based on Waite’s heartbreaking wedding story, fi...
Published: 06/07/18
Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Washington, D.C., is a city in crisis, the operations of the federal government all but paralyzed by the conspiracy theories of a powerful politician who behaves as if the bounds of protocol and decency don’t apply to him. As he distracts the nation,...
Published: 06/06/18
What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

Helen RappaportWhile delving into archives and researching her new book about the murder of the Russian imperial family 100 years ago, The Race to Save the Romanovs, Rappaport celebrated the digital age. "I am able to go back so far in time and look ...
Updated one month ago
Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

In "Flower Hunters," one of the stories in Lauren Groff’s stunning new book Florida, a character gets a reader’s crush on 18th century explorer William Bartram, an early chronicler of the state’s flora and fauna: "She’s most d...
Updated one month ago
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Updated one month ago
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Updated one month ago

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Updated one month ago
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Updated one month ago