Atomic farmgirl

  • Atomic Farmgirl: The Betrayal of Chief Qualchan, the Appaloosa, and Me, by Teri Hein, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colo., 2000. Hardcover: $22.95. 255 pages.

  It was a headline in The Spokesman-Review that informed my family that both the bomb at Alamogordo and the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki contained plutonium produced at Hanford. That's how everybody - everybody in the whole world and everybody in our neighborhood - found out what was going on down there: from the newspaper, after the fact. People in all of eastern Washington took a certain pride in the part they had played in ending the war, assuming t
- Teri Hein, Atomic Farmgirl

Teri Hein was born to a life of stability. She and her three sisters grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington, on land that "in the history of time, had changed hands only twice: stolen once (from the Indians) and sold once (to my grandfather)."

But Hein was born in 1953, an unstable time for the atom. Ten years earlier, the federal government had forced 1,200 landowners off their property to make room for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, about 100 miles southwest of the Hein homestead on Hangman Creek. Throughout the 1940s, Hanford scientists released significant amounts of radioactive iodine-131, and prevailing winds carried the waste to the Heins' otherwise peaceful neighborhood.

Although Hein's wholesome childhood was marked by Flag Day celebrations and sibling rivalry, it also bore grimmer memories: her father's brain hemorrhage, a schoolmate's death from leukemia, a neighbor's death from lupus. Seven of the 10 families in her neighborhood of homesteads have been affected by various forms of cancer. One family lost a father and two children.

In Atomic Farmgirl, readers learn about the illnesses and deaths as the Heins did. At first, the cases are isolated incidents, tragedies that temporarily interrupt the regular flow of farm life. It takes years for a pattern to become apparent, and it takes even longer for the community to uncover a connection with the mysterious federal facility down the road. Though the book occasionally wanders, Hein's story is a powerful one, and her wry, forthright voice and vivid memories make the tale absorbing.
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