Teri Hein's upbringing -- on a farm outside Fairfield in the 1950s and '60s -- could be described as "idyllic." Summers were spent riding horses, eavesdropping on the neighbors' phone conversations and making costumes for the annual Flag Day parade. Winters were for repairing equipment, doing jigsaw puzzles and watching The Ed Sullivan Show on TV. Hein grew up enjoying such bygone small-town pleasures as running up a cherry Coke tab at the general store and running around with the other farm kids -- whose families she knew nearly as well as she did her own.
But as is the way with anyone's childhood or with any so-called "more innocent time" in American history, things were not always what they seemed. In Hein's case, her family's happiness was tempered by her father's serious health problems -- first thyroid cancer at 31 and then a mysterious and debilitating brain hemorrhage a decade and a half later (her father still lives in Spokane). And, it seemed, their neighborhood had more than its share of cancer -- in fact seven out of the 10 families sharing a party line with the Heins were afflicted by at least one, if not several, cases of cancer. It wasn't until the 1980s, when the media began running stories about the health problems of "downwinders" -- people who lived in the path of wind currents streaming from the direction of the Hanford nuclear reactor -- that it all began to make more sense. Could it be, Hein wondered, that toxic releases from Hanford, more than a hundred miles away and the source of great regional pride in the aftermath of World War II, was somehow to blame?
Hein -- who also teaches at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center -- spent more than 10 years looking into old newspaper accounts, writing to scientists and evoking the memories of her own childhood for the printed page. The result is Atomic Farmgirl, a book that is at once memoir, regional history and investigative report. First published in hardcover in 2000 and released in paperback last month, Atomic Farmgirl -- despite the topic -- is surprisingly enjoyable.
"It's the lighter side to nuclear poisoning," Hein jokingly intones, as if presenting her own appearance on The View. "But seriously, I come from a family that really appreciates humor, and we make jokes about everything. It's just the way I am, so in terms of the book, it wasn't intentional, but I think it makes the book pretty accessible."
Accessibility notwithstanding, Atomic Farmgirl is both a portrait of small town life in the 1950s and an exploration into the possibility that the Hanford nuclear reactor might be behind this small town's unusually high cancer rate. Although the book jacket compares Hein's memoir to Erin Brockovich, she wields her points with a lot more restraint, simply putting her information out there and letting readers draw their own conclusions.
"I think it's important to recognize that the chances of them ever finding any definitive proof that Hanford caused these cancers are really slim," Hein admits. "It was too long ago, and it's too expensive. Also, you have to be careful with any definitive scientific statement. We live in a time that tends to gauge everything on what science says. But even science changes. At one time, science insisted that the world was flat."
Still, the evidence is hard to ignore. While working on this book, Hein discovered that throughout the 1940s and '50s, Hanford repeatedly released such toxic waste elements as iodine-131 into the environment. To give the reader an idea of both the magnitude and severity of such an incident, she compares the Green Run of 1949, during which Hanford released at least 8,000 curies of highly carcinogenic iodine-131, to the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island, which released about 15 curies. Even more frightening is the fact that between 1944 and 1972, Hanford released an estimated 740,000 curies, which were deposited all over Eastern Washington, Western Montana, North Idaho, and even up into British Columbia.
Hein goes on to point out that the government knowingly allowed these releases to happen. She also describes how in the early days, towns like White Bluff and Hanford were just like small communities like Fairfield. Families farmed their land and raised their kids and trusted progress to ensure better lives for everyone. But in the 1940s, the government took over orchards and vineyards that had been in families for decades. White Bluff and Hanford faded into ghostly obscurity. Worse yet, a culture of secrecy surrounded the new power plant. The town of Richland changed overnight from a nice little community on the banks of the Columbia River to an X-Files-esque place where government workers came home from their top-secret jobs and retreated inside the air-conditioned comfort of their identical tract houses.
"I can't think of a better place to build a bomb factory," Hein writes in Atomic Farmgirl. "It was just so hot and weird. Nobody ever talked about it when we went to visit, even though the plutonium processors were just a short drive down the way."
The book has met with the kind of grassroots support many first-time writers only dream of. NPR's All Things Considered documented Hein's return to her hometown after the hardcover publication of Atomic Farmgirl, and CNN's Booknotes covered a reading in Yakima attended by an atypical crowd of Rush Limbaugh-listening "crusty old farmers." The paperback edition is being featured this month in "Booksense 76," a periodical of titles recommended by independent booksellers. In the meantime, lawsuits against various Hanford contractor companies -- including General Electric, Atlantic Richfield and Dupont -- that have been roadblocked for years are finally moving forward.
Atomic Farmgirl's subtitle is "Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place," and Hein effectively conjures up the kind of town where families look after each other with casseroles and where the general store keeps a phone on the windowsill for everyone to use. At times the memoir reads more like a novel, and one starts to feel like part of the lively Hein clan or at the very least, one of the neighbors. Which is why, when the "characters" start becoming mysteriously sick, it's all the more affecting.
In fact, early drafts of her family's story so impressed writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams -- who was teaching the nonfiction writing class that Hein was taking -- that the celebrated author made a highly unusual promise.
"She took me aside towards the end of class and said, 'Your story about your family and this community is really compelling,'" Hein recalls. "'I think this story could become a book, and if you write it, I will help you.'"
Williams kept her promise and even has a prominent blurb on the front cover, in addition to having waxed rhapsodic about the book at a Bookfest Northwest writers-and-their-mentors panel. Still, it's the readers from her hometown, and the readers who come to the book with a healthy degree of skepticism, that Hein particularly relishes.
"I'm happy that someone like Terry Tempest Williams -- who is so brilliant and articulate -- likes the book. But I'm also happy that the book isn't just 'preaching to the choir,'" Hein says. "It means a lot to me that the book can be enjoyed by people that may not agree with me, people who might find this whole nuclear thing kind of alarmist. But they really get into the story. I like that I get to be subversive that way."