Teri Hein hit the nail on the head when she came up with the title and subtitle for her first book. Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place blends a few contradictory words with some ambivalent phrasing (has this farmgirl grown up the right way in the wrong place, or smack dab right in the middle of the wrong place?), resulting in an attention-grabber of a title that needs some further explanation. How exactly can one be both a wholesome farmgirl and “atomic?”
Hein answers these concerns and more in her memoir of growing up on her family’s eastern Washington wheat farm. The paradoxical title makes a lot more sense once she begins to describe how one can be raised in an idyllic and sheltered community while being exposed at the same time to some of the most violent and destructive forces in the modern world.
Hein is a farmgirl by birth, a great-granddaughter of eastern Washington’s original homesteaders, reared on the very land her ancestors staked out, cultivated, and passed down to following generations. She points out that she’s part “atomic” too, a child of the Cold War era and a victim of nuclear activity. Hein’s family farm was exposed throughout the ’40s and ’50s to radioactive elements emanating from a nuclear plant 100 miles to the southwest. It wasn’t until 1986 that information on the Hanford plant was released to the public, and not until the early ’90s that people in Hein’s community began to wonder how much of their bad luck may have been avoidable. This book is part childhood memoir, part Erin Brockovich-inspired documentary of modernity run amok. Hein has watched several lifetimes’ worth of illness and death sweep a devastating swath through her community. Understandably, she’s angry.
Not too angry, however, to create a poignant and detailed account of the lives and places that shaped her childhood. Hein’s overall frustration is never far from the surface, and her conviction that the Hanford plant is directly and indirectly responsible for the multiple forms of cancer her family and neighbors lived through and died from always hovers near the reader’s consciousness. But Hein focuses elsewhere, and through the picture she paints of her small corner of the Palouse wheatlands, we begin to recognize the characters she grew up with, and the stories, good and bad, they shared. Her family and neighbors touch us in that all-too-human way, reminding us of our own beginnings and sentimental memories, while the history of her region fascinates us with its uniquely tragic twist—a misfortune about which we eagerly want to hear more. We like Hein because it’s as if we grew up with her, but her neighborhood has just been in a car wreck and we’re all craning our heads to get a peek.
Integral to the memoir genre is the fact that most authors, at least those without political ambitions or ancient bones to pick, feel an honest compulsion to keep it real. Hein is most likely not out for public office; she works in a Seattle cancer center schooling sick kids, and doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda other than to portray the place of her childhood, and to remember those who died there too young. Even her speculations about the Hanford plant and its role in poisoning her family and neighbors never take up more than a few pages at a time, as if Hein is fearful of overstepping the boundary into finger-pointing. Throughout the bulk of the book, we’re given a hodgepodge of family stories dating back to the author’s great-grandparents, descriptions of each of her three sisters and the fights and arguments they still have as adults, and tedious details of family life, right down to a listing of the TV shows they watched and loved. This oft-ordinary life, truth be told, results in an oft-ordinary memoir. Some of Hein’s stories come off just about as dull and irrelevant as if some gray-haired granny was telling them from her rocker, eyes closed, lost in reverie. But for most of the book, the author is surprisingly good at depicting the commonplace, twisting events and people around to reveal their extraordinary undersides and their glowing humanity. Writing about the annual Christmas program at the town church, Hein warmly describes her own family tradition of piling in the car “dressed to the nines in something velveteen and new,” driving to church as “Dad played Christmas music on the radio while Mom sang along. We children looked out the windows, going over and over in our minds the Bible verses we were about to deliver, silently moving our lips.” Even though the moment is typical, Hein brings something tender and lyrical to this routine family snapshot. She is also just as willing to revel in the things that weren’t so square or prim about her upbringing, and describes her childish pranks and obstinate brattiness at great length, until a sometimes-unlovable child emerges from her honest self-portrait. It’s fetching to hear a woman recount the time she whacked a 10-year-old neighbor, dying of leukemia, over the head with a spelling book in the back of the school bus.
It could be that anger and resentment drove Hein to denounce the wrong done to her community over the last 60 years, but I don’t think so. I think Hein has captured the lurking worry in all of us, an apprehension that the places and people we’ve known won’t last, and that even memories get tossed in the graveyard. It makes me wonder why more of us don’t write memoirs as personal, real, and pleasantly ordinary as this one.