Downwind: A People's History of the Nuclear West

By Sarah Alisabeth Fox. 2014. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8032-5537-1 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Amy Brunvand

[Review length: 739 words • Review posted on September 22, 2015]

[Cover ofDownwind: A People's History of the Nuclear West]

When above-ground nuclear testing commenced at the Nevada Test Site in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) deliberately waited until the wind was blowing away from Las Vegas and densely populated parts of California to set off bombs. As a consequence, radioactive fallout was directed over the so-called “low use segment of the population” living in rural Utah—people who later named themselves “downwinders” after the atomic legacy of contaminated food, birth defects, cancer, and other ills. Downwinders had been assured by government officials that bomb testing was perfectly safe -- they were merely told to wear sunglasses if they wanted to go out and watch the mushroom clouds. But in time it became evident that something was seriously wrong. The circle of downwinders grew to include people affected by working in uranium mines and those exposed to radioactive tailings, many of them Navajo tribal members.

The question that Sarah Alisabeth Fox addresses is critically important: how did the downwinders figure out what was happening to them? They were, for the most part, ranchers and farmers or marginalized indigenous people, few of whom were trained scientists, yet they engaged in popular epidemiology to identify patterns of radiation-related illnesses and created a social movement with enough political force to pass the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and inspire protests at the Nevada Test Site.

Fox, who is not a native of the region, learned of the downwinders from Terry Tempest Williams’s book Refuge and identifies storytelling as a key element to the spread of information within downwind communities. Fox shows how “the narratives of downwinders and uranium-affected people reveal the process by which rumors about environmental contamination emerge and spread locally” (225). Fox believes that the tight-knit Mormon and tribal communities the downwinders lived in facilitated communication because, “People are experts on their own lives” (188). She notes that ordinary people often have significant testimony to offer when their lives intersect with national and global events, and worries that in a world that has become less rooted to place and culture people who lack a sense of local history will have a much harder time tapping into collective memory as a tool for social justice.

Because many downwinders have died, Fox relies heavily on oral histories drawn from Carole Gallagher’s extraordinary photographic documentary American Ground Zero [1], and these two works might usefully be read as complementary texts. Fox noticed that many published oral histories have “formulaic similarity” and sometimes include details that could only have been known after the fact. Instead of dismissing these as faulty memories, she treats the common narrative themes as a kind of folktale that communicates important messages about customs, circumstances, and social norms. Fox writes, “I concluded lingering questions of scientific proof and historical accuracy were less important than the shift in people’s consciousness that had clearly taken place, fueled and documented by stories”(17).

Fox has done meticulous historical research, but it would have been helpful to have a bit more background information about the process of popular epidemiology as it has played out in other contaminated communities, and about the links between storytelling, activism and environmental justice. Other studies have addressed these issues, and as the pioneering ecocritical scholar Lawrence Buell wrote, “The dialogue between science and storytelling is particularly obvious in the representation of such issues as chemical contamination and radioactive fallout. Scientists and science writers from Rachel Carson to Sandra Steingraber have mobilized narrative as a way of making the impact of environmental toxins intelligible.” [2] Since this is specifically “a people’s history,” another notable omission is that little linkage is made between the downwinders’ story and the anti-nuclear protests that took place at the Nevada Test Site in the 1980s and 90s.

Nonetheless, Fox contributes an important new perspective to the history of the nuclear West, and in particular a perspective on activism in contaminated communities that is relevant not just to folklore but more broadly to environmental humanities scholarship. As the saying goes, “we all live downstream,” and certainly we all live downwind as well. Atomic testing in the western U.S. had terrible human costs, but it is not the last time that people will need to tell stories in order transform environmental crisis.

[1] Carole Gallagher. 1993. American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[2] Lawrence Buell, Ursula K. Heise, and Karen Thronber. 2011. “Literature and Environment,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 36: 417–40.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.