The April pick for the Boston.com Book Club is “Paradise Falls” by Keith O’Brien. This marks the Book Club’s first non-fiction pick of the year. “Paradise Falls” details the true story of the Love Canal environmental catastrophe that took place in Niagara Falls, and came to a head in the late 1970s. But while the events detailed in the book took place more than 40 years ago, they are incredibly relevant today.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Hooker Chemical had dropped 20,000 tons of toxic waste into Love Canal, filled in the land, and sold it to the city. Twenty years later, there was a neighborhood full of affordable houses there, not to mention two schools – one in the very heart of where the toxic waste had been buried. And as that waste bubbled back to the surface, it was making people sick. In some cases, sick enough to die.
Unfortunately for the residents of Love Canal, no one in the city or New York state wanted to do anything about it. Not until some stay-at-home mothers turned environmental activists took up the mantle. Lois Gibbs and Luella Kenny made people pay attention by any means necessary, by holding rallies and press conferences, working with scientists and members of Congress, and in one case, taking hostages. It’s a fascinating, amazing, and often sickening story, and is something that could absolutely happen again today.
The book has already earned two starred reviews. Booklist says “the text blisters with details,” and adds that “O’Brien has accomplished an outstanding work of investigative journalism.” Library Journal concurred, saying that “this authoritative book deserves a wide audience and should provoke reflection on just how much we have progressed in the 45 years since the Love Canal disaster.” They weren’t the only outlets to offer praise. Publishers Weekly called the book “masterly,” and Kirkus Reviews called it “a renewed call for corporate accountability.”
This isn’t the first time that New York Times bestselling author O’Brien has unearthed a piece of history that holds up a mirror to today’s society. His last book, “Fly Girls,” which tells the story of some of the first female airplane pilots (including Amelia Earhart), did the exact same thing. O’Brien is also the author of “Outside Shot.” In addition to being a bestselling author, O’Brien is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared at The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, and Politico, among many other outlets, and he was a staff writer for both the Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picuyane. He now lives in New Hampshire.
As such, it seemed only fitting that a bookseller from O’Brien’s local store hosted our discussion with him. Enter Stef Schmidt, manager and buyer of the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H. Schmidt has been a fixture at Water Street since she started as a bookseller there in 2008, and became the manager and buyer in 2011. Stef has been getting lost in books since she was a kid, and she realized that by majoring in English in college and then working at a bookstore that she could just keep reading.
Water Street Bookstore was founded in 1991 by Dan Chartrand. Located in downtown Exeter, just a stone’s throw from prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, the store has a picture-perfect setting. The front of the store faces out to – you guessed it, Water Street, which is the nerve center of Exeter’s vibrant downtown area. The back of the store faces the Squamscott River. And unlike most stores, whose back is just a windowless stock room and/or office, one of the best parts of Water Street Bookstore is the back of the store, where you can grab a book and hunker down by the large windows that overlook the Squamscott. It’s a beautiful, peaceful, unique thing.
This book club discussion will be one of the final events of the Globe’s upcoming Sustainability Week, and as such, we’re hosting it at a special time. Be sure to join O’Brien and Schmidt on Friday, April 22 at 12 p.m.! Register here.
Boston.com Book Club picks:
- “Full Dissidence” by Howard Bryant
- “The Shame” by Makenna Goodman
- “We Ride Upon Sticks” by Quan Barry
- “The Cousins” by Karen M. McManus
- “Riot Baby” by Tochi Onyebuchi
- “Fat Chance, Charlie Vega” by Crystal Maldonado
- “Things That Grow” by Meredith Goldstein
- “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel
- “The Northern Reach” by W.S. Winslow
- “Summer on the Bluffs” by Sunny Hostin
- “Something Wild” by Hanna Halperin
- “The First to Lie” and “Her Perfect Life” by Hank Phillippi Ryan
- “It’s Better to Be Feared” by Seth Wickersham
- “Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy” by Nathaniel Philbrick
- “Woodrow on the Bench” by Jenna Blum
- “Yonder” by Jabari Asim
- “Thank You, Mr. Nixon” by Gish Jen
- “Mercy Street” by Jennifer Haigh