Summary and book reviews of Toms River by Dan Fagin

Toms River

A Story of Science and Salvation

By Dan Fagin

Toms River
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2013,
    560 pages.

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Book Summary

Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction The riveting true story of sixty years in the life of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a fascinating scientific detective story, and an unforgettable cast of characters into a sweeping narrative in the tradition of A Civil Action, The Emperor of All Maladies, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

One of New Jersey's seemingly innumerable quiet seaside towns, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town's namesake river.

In an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China. He tells the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn't want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.

A gripping human drama rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, Toms River is a tale of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect, and of a few brave individuals who refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.

Excerpt
Toms River

It is no small challenge to spend long days and longer nights in a place where children die, but Lisa Boornazian had the knack. She began working at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in 1991, during the summer of her senior year of nursing school at Villanova University. The following year she found a home in the cancer ward at CHOP. Back then she was Lisa Davenport, and not much older than some of her patients. "I loved working in oncology. I saw plenty of nurses who came to work at the unit and it wasn't what they expected. They just couldn't stay. But I loved it," she remembered. The ward was a surprisingly lively place, where little kids dashed down the wide hallways with their wheeled intravenous stands clattering beside them. The older children, though, were much more difficult to deal with. "The teenagers had a grasp of death, and what the diagnosis meant," Boornazian said. "The younger kids mostly had no idea." Those with brain or bone ...

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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2014

Reviews

BookBrowse

In an age when thorough investigative reporting is becoming increasingly rare, Dan Fagin's work demonstrates how journalism can bring clarity to the past and also better the present day.   (Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses and Parasite Rex
Toms River is an epic tale for our chemical age. Dan Fagin has combined deep reporting with masterful storytelling to recount an extraordinary battle over cancer and pollution in a New Jersey town.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe
At once intimate and objective, Toms River is the heartbreaking account of one town's struggle with a legacy of toxic pollution. Dan Fagin has written a powerful and important book.

Author Blurb Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
A thrilling journey through the twists and turns of cancer epidemiology, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin takes us on a breathtaking tour through a wide terrain of topics - cancer, the environment, carcinogenesis and prevention - yet manages to keep us engaged with deeply personal stories. He handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.

Publishers Weekly

A crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance makes this environmental caper essential reading.

Library Journal

Readers may be bogged down by the minutia of this book, but its detailed text will appeal to in-depth researchers, especially those with a personal connection to the region or familiar with the chemistry detailed herein.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Fagin weaves fascinating background material on epidemiology, statistical analysis and more into this hard-hitting chronicle. A gripping environmental thriller.

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The Roots of American Environmentalism

As Fagin shows readers through the specific events in Toms River, environmental and ecological concerns began to receive attention in American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. The creation of the Department of Environmental Protection (now the Environmental Protection Agency) was heavily encouraged, in part, by individuals across America who, like the residents of Toms River, feared for the well-being of their region and themselves.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring Investigative journalists played a significant role in spearheading the movement by reporting on the dangers of environmental toxins, deforestation, nuclear testing, and other ecological damage. Most notable among literary works was the 1962 Silent Spring, an exposé by marine biologist Rachel Carson....

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