Great reporting doesn’t always lead to great writing, but it certainly never hurts. “Paradise Falls,” Keith O’Brien’s propulsive account of the Love Canal environmental crisis that gripped the town of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the late ‘70s, is a masterpiece of narrative detail that could spring only from asking the right questions of the right people and digging through mountains of research. It reads like a thriller, but only because O’Brien has done the legwork necessary to put the pieces together. The book is first and foremost a mighty work of historical journalism, rooted in the stories of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, and discovering that they’re not so ordinary after all.
If you weren’t around at the time, Love Canal might blur together with other late-’70s news stories, like the Iran hostage crisis, or, more pertinently, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. In fact it was a story several decades in the making. The canal’s origin was in the 1890s, when it was commissioned by a huckster named William T. Love as part of a new paradise called Model City. The project didn’t pan out, and Love skipped town, leaving his canal behind.
In the 1940s, dumping by Hooker Chemical Company began. Residents started complaining of burning eyes and skin and other maladies. The tons of waste underground created foul odors; as O’Brien writes, “It was the sickly sweet, unmistakable smell of chemicals, and it seemed to be coming from underground.” By the ‘70s, there were reports of surface rocks spontaneously combusting.
Cancer, miscarriages: the health crises would only grow more severe. But “Paradise Falls” is as much about the human response as the disaster itself. It’s about the congressman, John J. LaFalce, whose district endures the brunt of the damage; and New York Health Commissioner David Axelrod, alarmed but also eager to cover his own rear. It’s about the Carter administration officials trying to balance the Love Canal crisis with the problems of a country coming apart at the seams.
Mostly, it’s about the local women who banded together across class and professional lines to make sure the powerbrokers knew what was happening in Niagara Falls. Condescendingly dismissed as mere “housewives,” they came to embrace the descriptor as they made enough organized noise to get and keep the attention of Washington and Albany. They knew better than anyone what was happening in and to their city; in some cases they had lost loved ones to the contamination. They are the heroes of “Paradise Falls,” the underdogs for whom we cheer even (or especially) as their world falls apart.
This is something of an O’Brien specialty. In “Fly Girls,” he told the story of five women who broke through the chauvinism of the airplane racing world in between world wars, shattering the ceiling of the sky. But those pilots achieved a degree of fame (more than a degree, in Amelia Earhart’s case). You’ve likely never heard of Lois Gibbs, the working-class, impromptu organizer who thrust herself into the Love Canal cause and became a spokeswoman for her community. Or Luella Kenny, the cancer researcher whose family paid the ultimate price for living in the canal’s vicinity. Or Sister Joan Malone, who defied the leadership of her church and threw her faith and her skills as an organizer behind the push to have the disaster properly recognized and remedied.
Similar stories, such as “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brockovich,” focus on individual heroes who risk it all to take on corporate polluters. O’Brien does something more difficult. He makes the entire community his protagonist. He introduces each character as a novelist might, developing them and tracing their actions carefully, allowing them to become parts of the bigger picture. There are deaths and divorces and breakdowns, and defeats at the hands of better-funded and heavily staffed adversaries, who also emerge as fully developed characters trying to maintain the status quo while Niagara Falls is poisoned.
The town’s status as a vacation destination creates a surreal backdrop to the suspense. “The tourists might have come to see the waterfalls, and ride the Maid of the Mist out into the spray, and cross over into Canada, and send postcards home — ‘Greetings from Niagara Falls,’” O’Brien writes. “But they could also make time to visit the city’s newest attraction — the poisoned neighborhood — to ogle the sad people in their worthless little houses.”
“Paradise Falls” is a gloriously quotidian thriller about people forced to find and use their inner strength. After all these years, they are fortunate to have a chronicler as focused and thoughtful as O’Brien. He brings their courage back to life.
Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe
Pantheon, 480 pages, $30
Chris Vognar, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, is a freelance cultural critic.