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I must acknowledge right up front, that I have a bias, in favor of Rachel Carson (1907-1964). I remember reading her “Under the Sea-Wind” published in 1941 and I was in high school when “The Sea Around Us” published in 1951 and “The Edge of the Sea” in 1955, came out and I avidly read. I will admit that it was these books and her various magazine and newspaper article that triggered my interest in science and set me off on a career in science. I was in college when “Silent Spring” came out in September 1962 and was the talk of the campus. When I came across “On a Farther Shore” (published September 2012) by William Souder I bought it right away to read: I wonder how I missed it in 2012. The book is eloquently written and meticulously researched. I did note the book was published on the 50th anniversary of “Silent Spring” publication. Souder’s work is a compelling and compulsively readable portrait of one of the most influential writers of the twenty century. Souder states that Carson graduated from the Pennsylvania Collage for Women and got a job as a biologist and technical writer for the U.S. Department of fisheries. She worked at the government job for many years, even after the governmental reorganization and the department was merged and changed into the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service. I must admit that even though I have read almost all Carson’s writing I knew little of her personal life. I wish Souder had gone more into her private life but he mostly concentrated on her writings. Souder’s narrative sometimes loss focus, such as a chapter he devotes to a short biography of Henry Williamson, an English nature writer Carson admired. Souder goes into great depth about “Silent Spring” but briefly Carson linked radioactive fallout with the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the harmful effects they were having on the environment. Souder states they were the “twin fears of the modern age.” The author goes on in detail about how overdue Carson was in meeting the publisher (Houghton Miffin) deadline dates. He mentions Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer in passing but what he did not emphasize was the she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the time she signed the contract with the publisher to write “Silent Spring”. She had surgery, radiation treatment and then was dying of cancer WHILE writing the book. It is hard enough to write a book but to do so when dying it is no wonder she miss deadline dates. I also noted that Souder points out that in her sea books Carson pointed out the effects of climate change from the greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. At the time she wrote her books it was just at the beginning of scientific awareness of the problem. “Silent Spring” started the environmental movement also paved the way toward the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency signed into law by President Richard Nixon. There was a lot of criticism of the book at the time but she has been proven correct. David Drummond did an excellent job in narrating this 15 plus hours book.
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Considering the enormous controversy created by her book Silent Spring, this biography seemed to go out of its way to portray Carson as a boring scientist. While Mr. Souder leaves no stone unturned in giving us an account of the process Carson used to write her multiple best-selling books, I can’t help but think that a female biographer would have delved much more into Carson’s personal life. I marveled that she was completely self-reliant, providing for not only herself but also her mother, sister and nephew, while still managing to research and write some of the most celebrated non-fiction of her times. But this part of her life is only mentioned infrequently and its impact on her writing is not really examined in any meaningful way. There are lovely passages in which Souder draws back the veil on Carson’s most intimate relationship, via letters between herself and a female friend, but he shies away from deeply examining the true nature of their relationship. If he could give us tons of background info on the nuclear threat during the years while Carson was writing Silent Spring, surely he could also have gone into some background on the status of homosexuality at the time and put a context for this relationship that was clearly the most important one in Carson’s entire life. Souder also missed an opportunity to examine the continuing impact of Carson’s environmental ideas on our world today, perhaps via conversations with current environmentalists who could speak to her influence. In all, a more modern perspective might have enlivened this book about this truly extraordinary woman.
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