Thursday, January 4, 2024

Literally the Best Reviews: Paradise Falls

Paradise Falls - Keith O’Brien
Pantheon Publishing
480 Pages

Paradise Falls by Keith O’Brien is subtitled “The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe.” There are several points throughout the book that I question the beginning of that subtitle. It’s too bad, too, because what O’Brien has done with the plights of the families living in Love Canal is simply amazing. The rest of it? Not so much. It’s probably some of the basics that he misses that ended up giving me a lower opinion of the book overall. If you’re not getting the basics, how can we trust the rest? Like I said, however, his portrayal of the families is a wonderful chunk of writing.

Love Canal. Even now, nearly half a century later, those two words send a ripple through the western New York Community. Nothing quite expresses the costs of the post-World War II excesses like Love Canal and other hazardous waste dumps around the country. But Love Canal was the first to expose the dirty secrets of progress.

I was recommended this book by a fellow reader and library enthusiast. I had not yet heard of Paradise Falls, but it would have only been a matter of time. As an historian in Niagara County, the subject not only intrigues me, both for a new historical aspect and for personal reasons. Love Canal dominated the news as I was growing up. It was hard to escape Irv Weinstein telling us about the animosity between homeowners, Hooker Chemical, and the people who were supposed to be looking out for their best health interests. At the same time, there is also a personal reason to be interested in Love Canal’s legacy.

In Lyndonville, New York, my grandmother was fighting her own battle for the clean up of a hazardous dump directly across the street from her house. For several years, Barry Sulphur & Lime Company, followed by DuPont  dumped liquid waste directly into the ground. From the flickering glow of her television, she saw another neighborhood making national waves over chemicals lurking underneath their homes and streets. Maybe grandma thought she’d be able to ride the crest of the wave to get her own dump remediated. Maybe she thought she could be the next Lois Gibbs, finding herself being interviewed by correspondents from the Big Three networks. 

At any rate, I spent a lot of time at her house, listening to her talk about the dump, reading her files, and physically smelling the sulphuric odors emanating from her basement after a rainstorm or spring thaw. Each spring, that same, rotten egg stench wafted from storm sewer grates down the road and from a ditch that ran alongside a neighbor’s property. That ditch was open in the 50s and 60s, and my mother would play in that area where the ground never froze. While her medical issues later were never as serious as the ones suffered by those at Love Canal, they had a direct impact on my immediate family. All of this contributed to my curiosity in this new book by Keith O’Brien.

Keith O’Brien  is an award-winning author who has also written Fly Girls. He formerly wrote for the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His radio stories have also appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. With such a pedigree, I had high hopes for a great book. In some parts, O’Brien definitely delivered. In others, the outcome wasn’t nearly as rosy.

O’Brien has been hailed by the New York Times Book Review for “his lyrical writing.” This book was very easy to read, flowing well and keeping the reader turning the pages. In a sense, you could say that it was lyrical. However, he has a very bad habit, especially early in the book, of repeating himself. The same phrases appear over and over again. They stand out. Two examples are the various dignitaries and health officials. O’Brien says, no less than five or six times that “he had to see if for himself.” If not that exact wording, it was so similar that it stood. In fact, for John LaFalce, he repeated the phrase twice. Another example was with Jon Allen Kenny’s stuffed dog, Scuppity. Every time Scuppity is mentioned, it is also qualified with “stuffed dog.” By page 162, the reader has gotten this figured out and no longer needs the reminding.

In the early pages, some of his writing becomes convoluted and difficult to follow, especially some historical facts. On page 29, he writes of the construction of Model City falling silent while also discussing the digging of the canal. “...the steam shovels had long fallen silent, rusting in the snow on the riverbanks in LaSalle. The only visitors to Model City were now curious reporters and bill collectors…” This statement is vague in that he never explicitly explains where Model City was located. To a reader unfamiliar with the geography and history, one would assume that Model City was the name of the area where William T. Love was digging the canal in LaSalle.

Regarding Model City, O’Brien not only denies its current existence, he fails to capitalize on the current state of that place by its own series of calamities and near calamities after Love abandoned the project. Yes, Model City exists still on a map. It also has a Post Office and a small smattering of homes. However, there are two things that were never mentioned in the book that should have, if only to show how much Love's utopian dream had become a dystopian nightmare. What remains at Model City? Modern Disposal Services and Waste Management, both collectors of garbage and waste in the area, are located there. Even more disturbing, part of the site of the possible Model City megapolis was purchased by the US Government for the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW). At the LOOW, families were displaced for the government to manufacture dynamite, among other things. Atomic waste from the Manhattan Project is also preserved there. And those are the bookends for Love’s project -- Love Canal and atomic waste.

On the plus side, O’Brien does a fantastic job bringing the plight of the families affected by the dangers of Love Canal to life. There is real empathy coming from the page. You can feel the pain of mothers and fathers as they watched helplessly as their children suffered. The fear and agony of the real people are palpable. This is where O’Brien shines as a writer. 

The story of Love Canal is about more than the chemicals that were dumped into the ground. It’s about the people. In O’Brien’s narrative, he focuses intently on this aspect of the disaster. The author has surpassed other, earlier works in this regard. However, he does sacrifice the other parts of the story in this effort. He paints Love Canal as “good versus evil” with the good getting all the sugar and the bad coming off as shallow stereotypes, and spotty history. O’Brien has brought a new, important facet to the Love Canal story. It’s too bad he sacrificed so much to do so.

Craig Bacon loves reading about local history. It’s a tough subject that requires a lot of love and attention.