Book Review—Toms River: a story of science and salvation by Dan Fagin

19scibooks-popupIn the 1950s the Swiss dye manufacturing company Ciba-Geigy arrived in Toms River, a small town by the Jersey shore. Its arrival brought jobs, and a boon to the local economy, helping Toms River to grow in size and wealth. Yet, as the residents were quietly watching their town prosper, hidden behind the trees on the factory’s vast property, Ciba-Geigy was dumping billions of tons of hazardous chemical waste into the river, unlined landfills, and eventually the ocean. Soon, residents began to notice a foul smell and taste in their drinking water, and children were seemingly born with unusually high levels of childhood brain and spinal cancers.

Dan Fagin’s extensive nonfiction piece, Toms River: a story of science and salvataion, chronicles the saga of the town, the factory, and the story that took over 20 years to unfold. This book is not only about Toms River, but also a history of cancer, epidemiology, dye manufacturing, science’s role in the legal system, and so much more. Fagin leaves no questions unanswered.

Readers looking to experience this book are guaranteed to learn something new, but should be warned not to expect a happy ending. The title, which includes the word “salvation”, is a tad misleading– but instead of saying more I would encourage you to experience the story for yourself. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and in the afterword the author expresses his surprise not only in receiving the prize, but also in how this book was received among readers. I’ll give you a taste:

“Since the publication of Toms River, I have watched with fascination as readers have drawn their own lessons from the facts in these pages. Because of the book’s surprising success…I have had many opportunities to listen to readers…From them, I have learned that the Toms River saga proves we need to aggressively investigate cancer clusters. I have also learned that it proves such investigations are a waste of time and money. I have learned that this book is an inspiring narrative of redemption, of tenacious heroes who saved their community and set a shining example for the world. I have also learned that it is a dark tragedy of human greed and folly that proves we are forever doomed to repeat our past failings.”

Something that evokes so many differing opinions among readers, I think, is really something that is worth reading. So with that I say…

Story: 4 // Craft: 5 // Entertainment: ???2-5  this is not for leisure reading // Learning factor: way way way above a 5. You will walk away knowing much more than you did coming in. You just have to stick with it.

 

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About Annie McGovern

MA student in Science and Medical Writing; Creative Writing BA; consumes books and science for sustenance (and tea); questionable Korean language skills; end
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