Tragedy, coincidence and patterns

Review of “Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West” by Sarah Alisabeth Fox.

  • The first nuclear test detonation, code named Trinity, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, 1945.

    cc via wikipedia

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West

Sarah Alisabeth Fox

328 pages, hardcover: $29.95.

University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West constitutes an unofficial history of the atmospheric testing era (1951-1992) — the human stories that were never part of the record. Sarah Alisabeth Fox, a folklorist, spent eight years talking to people from the Four Corners region of the West. Their accounts bear witness to a series of personal tragedies: lung disease, late-term miscarriage, children with rare leukemia. Though government-collected data found clear links with radiation exposure, the findings were buried to reassure citizens of the safety of nuclear development. The scientists succeeded in splitting the atom; in turn, the downwinders’ stories split apart the “official fictions” created to hide the consequences.

In St. George, Utah, for instance, 5-year-old Claudia, playing on her swing set, watched a “big red ball come up over the horizon.” Decades later, her father and sister succumbed to cancer, her own toddler to monoblastic leukemia. Animals were affected, too: In 1953, sheep and lambs in Cedar City died en masse. Over time, these individual tragedies morphed from possible coincidences into discernable patterns. “As modern-day observers, our first question … is invariably… of scope: How many bombs? How much uranium? How much sickness?” Fox delivers a seminar in Nuclear History 101 with intelligent clarity, drawing from “declassified federal documents, archival records, journalistic coverage, and epidemiological studies,” and merging the results with downwinders’ stories.      

Officials condescendingly dismissed the downwinders’ experiences, Fox notes. Regarding the sheep die-off, she writes, “Raising sheep is not something one does on a lark while sitting atop a horse, contemplating wide-open western spaces.” Outsiders might have a “preconceived notion of rural ignorance,” but the ranchers themselves rely on “a cultural system of common sense drawn from local, experiential knowledge of forage conditions, weather patterns, plant characteristics, diagnosis and treatment of a variety of diseases, predator management, breeding, and lambing.”

In addition to illuminating the past, this book also sheds light on the present, challenging us to wonder what “official fictions” are being constructed today. We can learn from the downwinders, recognize the connection between living systems and act to protect our lives and the planet we depend on before more disasters occur. “Common sense tends to be undervalued as a source of wisdom,” Fox writes, “yet the body of knowledge it encompasses is by no means simplistic or generic.”

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