The week before last was fantastic. First, there was my birthday, and I left work early to read A Visitor for Bear to my son’s K/1 class. All 15 of their squirmy bodies went super still when I sat down and opened the book (expect my son, who wanted to snuggle and see the pictures while I read). That night my big sister made us all a home cooked meal and an Italian cake. I even got to stay late and drink more wine, while my partner took the kiddo home and they read birthday books in my honor at bedtime.
A couple days later, Sarah Alisabeth Fox launched her first book — Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West — into the world with a stellar reading at Elliott Bay Books. Fox is both a historian and a folklorist, and spent eight years talking to uranium affected people from the Four Corners region of the American West and collecting their stories, as well as pouring through archives, epidemiological studies, and declassified government documents. The result is a stunning book that holds facts, “official fictions,” and folktale-like stories of Downwinders side by side. I reviewed this book in High Country News in September (you can read it here), and interviewed Fox last month about writing as an act of witness, and how collecting these stories changed her (not sure where that conversation will end up yet, but I’ll let you know). Listening to Fox at her first reading, in front of 100+ people, was incredible, but my favorite moment was when someone in the audience asked her how she described her book and work to her 4-year old son.
“People wanted to make a really big shooter so that other people would be really nice to them, and it made a lot of people sick.”
He then climbed under the table, where he hung out for almost the entire Q&A, occasionally rising up to stroke her leg or hip. Because kids are totally unprofessional like that, which is why we love them, right?
Seeing them up there together, leg rubbing and all, reminded me that being a mama is a pretty awesome role to have. Reading Downwind, I was struck by the early activism of mothers — women who were housewives or maybe less educated as their urban counterparts, devout in their religions and patriotism. They tended their families, their communities, the sick and the dying. They made maps of diseases and deaths. They struggled with their own illnesses, the deaths of the children. I often feel that becoming a mom has radicalized me in some ways, but it’s hard to put into words. Some of the stories in this book struck that chord, and while I still haven’t been able to fully articulate my feelings, I connected with that element. I’m grateful that a mother has brought these stories together in a book that attempts to weave varied versions of history into something that gives credit to people’s lived experiences, and holds their stories as valid and important in understanding our shared history.