The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

64° Stony Brook, NY
The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    South Shore Life

    For a native Long Islander, any narrative chronicling the story of a local town is a book worth reading. Some stories are more successful at capturing the essence of a place and its people than others, depending of what aspects of the community the author chooses to explain to their readers.

    For a town as vast in nature and character as Brookhaven, there are endless possibilities on what to cover when writing a controversial memoir. Kelly McMasters’ “Welcome to Shirley” is exactly that kind of memoir.

    The book begins innocently enough. Set in the small south shore town of Shirley, McMasters starts her story by explaining how and why her parents settled where they did. After spending the first several years of her life bouncing around from place to place, her father finally found a job at a golf course near their new residence. McMasters is immediately in love with her new home.

    The town and its heavily concentrated Italian-American populace is recounted through the reminiscent memories of friendly neighbors and filling feasts. From the fourth of July block party celebrations to her uninhibited exploits into the nearby Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge, McMasters’ childhood world is good, peaceful, and most importantly, innocent.

    The positive tone in her prose quickly changes, however, after the illness and subsequent death of the family friend and town good guy, Jerry. Here, McMasters really starts to get into her moral contention with the practices and policies of the Brookhaven National Lab.

    Her introduction hints at this issue when she mentions “our fears of what might be moving through our bodies,” but this subtly planted seed is left fairly unattended until after the first few chapters.

    Indeed, after Jerry’s death, which she attributes as a result of his exposure to radioactive elements while working as a janitor at the lab, the story spirals on for much of the rest book about how Shirley is, in effect, a by-product of the lab.

    There is some history about the town, which seems strangely minuscule after completing the almost 300-page story. The narrative about Walter T. Shirley and his founding of a small but hopeful Atlantic coast city is perhaps the most beautiful and impressively scripted portion of her book.

    This display is soon overwhelmed by the factual information of Brookhaven National Lab workings and cancer statistics. It may have served McMasters better to try to weave the well-written history more into her story, but for the author, the soul of Shirley lies elsewhere.

    Shirley’s strive to be more than it is supposed to be is a powerful theme throughout the book. Whether it is the Atlantic hotel resort aspirations of its founder, the attempt to change the town’s name to something classier like “Floyd Harbor,” or the valiant efforts of lifelong residents like Ron Lupski to fight leaking toxic waste and cleaning up rivers, Shirley always seems to be aspiring to a greater purpose that lies just out of reach. After all, with the wealthy Hamptons to the east and rich hamlets to the north, these are not surprising goals to dream about.

    There is a clear sense of failure in McMasters’ writing, however, the town’s residents only feel this disappointment. There is a good quality to the people of Shirley, and this essence still lingers despite the onslaught of cancers, tragedies, and overall mood of “bad luck” that resonates in the hearts of the people. Jerry’s death was the death of innocence in McMasters’ mind, although in truth it was only her realization of the dangers that she saw as plaguing to her town.

    It becomes clear halfway through that this is a story more about the Brookhaven National Laboratories and its effects on local health and the environment than anything else.

    The actual timeline of her life is only consistently chronicled up until Jerry’s death. Afterwards, the book becomes a mixture of data and deductions intersected by retrospective adolescent occurrences that all have something to do with the lab. The conclusion is simple: Brookhaven National Lab is Shirley, Shirley is the people, the people are the lab.

    “Welcome to Shirley” often reads more like an environmentalist thesis paper than a memoir, which is fine if that is what you are in the mood for. McMasters’ statistical research and arguments are startling and scary, and certainly controversial to some.

    There are claims contrary to her own, as there is no clear explanation as to why the cancer rates on Long Island are in such excess to those elsewhere in the country. The town of Shirley may seem like a complete failure of the suburban dream to some, but to others the story is a triumph of those who have battled many hardships — manmade or not — and remained loyal to their home over the years.

    Shirley may not represent the phenotype that many have come to think of as Long Island. It is just another small town, which McMasters sees as having an atomic taint.

    She eventually goes away to college and moves out of Shirley, but ultimately still ends up returning to visit, almost deciding to settle down with her husband to start a family despite the apparent health risks. Regardless of UFO phenomenon, radiation, and rampant cancer, it is still her home. To McMasters she is part of the soul of Shirley, and Shirley is surely part of her.

    Leave a Comment
    Donate to The Statesman

    Your donation will support the student journalists of Stony Brook University. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The Statesman

    Comments (0)

    All The Statesman Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *