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One Fish, Two Fish, Sick Fish, Bad Fish

Stephanie Eve Boone reviews Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy, by Nancy A. Nichols

Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy, by Nancy A. NicholsIn Nancy Nichols’ hometown of Waukegon, Illinois, locals give out directions to industrial waste sites the way other townspeople would give directions to a nearby tourist destination.  I live in western New York, and I often tell drivers looking to take the Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, “Just go west on 104.”  A Waukegonite, just as casually, says, “Asbestos to the north; PCBs to the south.”  Oh, and don’t forget about the Superfund site just past Wendy’s Olde Fashioned Hamburgers.

So when, in a scene near the end of Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy, Nichols’ husband asks her, “Can you prove that these chemicals caused either your sister’s or your cancer?  I mean, really, can you prove this?” both narrator and reader are taken aback.  Nichols has spent the past fifteen years, and 120 pages, trying to make this very connection.  With a lucid, detailed, well-researched argument, she’s pretty well convinced her reader.  But her husband spent years as a federal prosecutor, and for him the word “proof” conjures up a different set of rules than those required for a book.  The courts, unfortunately, are not always receptive to nuance.  He knows that as abundant as her research is, she lacks hard evidence.  “My argument is not a simple or straightforward one,” she confesses.  “There is no smoking gun… I have made an extended argument that rests on the weight of the evidence in its entirety… all sorts of data pieced together in an elaborate web.”

But “there are different stands for proof depending on the venue,” and Nichols isn’t trying to sue anyone.  She’s a storyteller, not a plaintiff.  And even if she were going to file a lawsuit, where would she start?  Waukegon’s most notorious polluter, the Outboard Marine Corporation, declared bankruptcy in 2000.  And who’s to say the toxic PCBs that likely disrupted her endocrine system didn’t come from one of the ten dozen other factories that called Waukegon home during her childhood?  Lake Effect’s title refers, nominally, to the heavy snows dumped on areas surrounding the Great Lakes.  In Nichols’ book, the phrase is given two additional meanings: the effect, on the lakes, of direct dumping and gradual pollution by short-sighted corporations; and the resulting health effects, almost always negative, on the wildlife and people who use the lakes for food, water, and livelihood. 

Fish is supposed to be good for you.  If you have a little patience, a fishing pole, and a bucket of worms, proximity to water means a free source of protein and Omega-3.  But the salmon young Nancy and her big sister Susan ate frequently (even for breakfast) contained PCBs in rates 1,540 times today’s legal limits.  Should we be surprised that both women developed distinct, obscure cancers in their forties?  In Susan’s case, the illness was fatal, and the deathbed promise she extracted from Nancy led to the writing of this book.  Nancy barely escaped because of the frequent cancer screenings she went in for after her sister’s death; she watched out for cancer with an obsessiveness you might call hypochondria if it hadn’t saved her life. 

Most of all—beyond even honoring her sister’s final wish—Nichols uses this book to take a stand against complacency over pollution and illnesses.  In a meditation inspired by fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, she challenges the modern-day survivor narrative.  While rightly encouraging cancer survivors to fight, fight, fight, she says, the cultural mindset around cancer ignores its causes.  “If we keep warring, winning, and walking, we and others around don’t have to stop and ask: What made her sick?  [W]ithout taking anything away from the curable cases… the superstar cancer-patient image is simply a new kind of invisibility” she writes.

Nichols provides more detail than I have room for here about the relationship between genetics, pollutants, and illness.  My high-school English teacher told us that our compositions should be “Like the length of a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.”  Nichols’ book hits that standard with a bullet.  Readers usually daunted by stilted scientific writing (I’ll include myself) should find this a welcome introduction to ecological literature.  A journalist, Nichols writes with the ease, clarity, and authority of a woman who knows not only her material, but the importance of making it accessible to a wide audience.  And she writes with the passion of someone who has watched cancer ravage her family—and doesn’t want it to ravage yours.  She even has this crazy idea: “Environmentally related cancers and other diseases do not have to be an inevitable outcome of modern life.”


Stephanie Eve Boone, Terrain.org's reviews editor, has written for such publications as American Book Review, The Buffalo News, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Sonora Review, and The Journal of Popular Culture. She blogs about running at Examiner.com and covers national political news for Politics Unlocked. A native of West Virginia, she earned an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona in 2007. A writing teacher, she currently lives in Buffalo, New York, with her fiance, Dan.
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Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy

By Nancy A. Nichols

   Island Press
   ISBN 1597260843


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