ON A FARTHER SHORE:The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
By William Souder
Crown, 496 pp., illustrated, $30
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” is known as the first great book of the nascent environmental movement, but it was also the culmination of one writer’s strangely compelling career. William Souder’s quietly thrilling biography observes Carson as a naturalist and writer, known first for her three lyrical examinations of ocean life before she became the heroine of ecologists. Originally a government employee, writing and editing publications for the US Bureau of Fisheries, Carson began chronicling the dangers of pesticides after DDT testing in Maryland left behind dead fish and strangely damaged birds in the 1940s. By “Silent Spring’s’’ 1962 publication, although frail from bouts with cancer, Carson was at the height of her powers as a researcher and writer. “ ‘Silent Spring’ was many things,” writes Souder, “plea and polemic and prayer — but most important it was right.”
Souder treats Carson’s personal life sensitively — from her passionate friendship with Dorothy Freeman to her burdens as caretaker of her elderly mother and adoptive parent to her grand-nephew. But the real drama involves how her book shaped a new way of understanding our relationship with the earth. In one television interview, Carson provided what Souder calls a “neat and modern definition of ecology” when she argued about humankind’s responsibility to the earth’s equilibrium: “This doesn’t mean we must never interfere, never tilt the balance of nature in our favor. But when we make the attempt we must know what we’re doing. We must know the consequences.” Published in the midst of anxiety over nuclear bombs and radioactive fallout, at a time when babies were being born disabled because of Thalidomide poisoning, Carson’s book spoke to a generation who understood in a new way that “the world could end and that human technology could end it by means both seen and unseen.”
LAURA LAMONT’S LIFE IN PICTURES
By Emma Straub
Riverhead, 306 pp., $26.95
The youngest daughter of parents who run a theater set in a Wisconsin barn, Elsa Emerson is a child of the stage even before she discovers her love of performing. Moving to Los Angeles in the 1930s as a teenage bride, she can’t quite work out whether Hollywood is “actually even a proper neighborhood, or just an idea, like heaven.” There she bears two daughters, ditches her disappointing actor husband, and reinvents herself as Laura Lamont, movie star. Emma Straub’s debut novel is at once a delicious depiction of Hollywood’s golden age and a sweet, fulfilling story about one woman’s journey through fame, love, and loss.
A few sections feel skimpy — as when Laura briefly flirts with a heroin-addicted writer — but more often Straub impresses with her ability to imbue her light, delicate prose with emotional weight. She’s writes unironically (and refreshingly) about her characters’ happiness; the love story at the book’s heart is utterly convincing. Equally well-drawn are the wounds of Laura’s childhood, most painfully the suicide of her older sister, who had planned before her death to leave their hometown, a move Laura couldn’t understand: “How could Hildy want to go somewhere else when there were so many cherries right here?” It takes courage to write with this kind of simplicity and heart, and this book makes one look forward to Straub’s next one.
MY AMERICAN REVOLUTION:Crossing the Delaware and I-78
By Robert Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 259 pp., $26
“Let Longfellow go on about Paul Revere’s ride to Boston and thereabouts; let Emerson memorialize the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord,” writes Robert Sullivan. “It is within the view of the Empire State Building that the Revolutionary War was fought, and where the first president sat in a chair beneath a ceiling decorated with the moon and the stars and the sun.” In arguing for the region in and around New York as the overlooked epicenter of American history, Sullivan may irk some readers in the Hub, but it’s difficult to resist this eclectic, highly personal examination of America’s war of independence.
Sullivan focuses on the iconic image of Washington crossing the Delaware River and re-enacts lesser-known war efforts that include long-distance signaling from the mountains of New Jersey to his daughter’s middle-school classroom in New York. This book is as strange and beautiful as the group of porpoises that reportedly escorted ships heading to Manhattan for our first president’s inauguration there, “as if they had risen up to know what was the cause of all this joy.”