Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review: An Unreasonable Woman

An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, And the Fight for Seadrift, Texas by Diane Wilson

Ms. Wilson's book chronicles her transformation from shrimper-turned-fish-house-manager to environmental activist, all prompted by a single newspaper article in which she learned her home county in Texas was the most polluted in the country: "The article ranked Calhoun County first nationally for toxics to the land, and said we accounted for 54 percent of the state's total of a billion pounds..."

I think this book tells an important message, one that's hidden in nearly all "reliable" mainstream media and one we find hard to believe when reported in places less restrained: Most companies in this country, and the world, have little or no interest in being good citizens whether we're discussing employees, customers or the environment. We may think we believe that, but repeatedly companies and industries are given free rein or expected to police themselves. Again and again in the book, Ms. Wilson implies she has documentation (not referenced in end notes, of course, just stated as coming from various reports) of blatant disregard for the environmental and worker safety laws in the United States with the full or partial knowledge of those working in the EPA. It's horrifying, if it's true.

For what it's worth, I'm more inclined to believe her than the companies. Now you know my bias.

However...Ms. Wilson's writing style is difficult to wade through. I think it could have benefited from an editor willing and able to cut the excess and give the reader a book that retained her style without detracting from the story. In fact, I think this book had the potential to be amazing; instead, it's merely almost good.

Sometimes the phrasing was merely painful:
I was a cedar pole stuck in the mud alongside a riverbank, measuring the rise and fall of the bizarre happenings in the county, and the security man was a high-water mark. He was like a bad B movie where you have twenty-four hours to save the planet and nobody believes a word you say.
More often, the awkward sentences and rambling thoughts were confusing. I had trouble figuring out what was going on at all. Everything was smoother when the forward progress of the story suppressed the desire to be poetic.

For those that are interested, Ms. Wilson's legal battles and picketing escalated to activities like hunger strikes, attempting to sink her boat over toxic drainage and being carried bodily out of stockholder meetings. I did a little searching online and quickly realized she and I would not quite get along. In an interview in 2006 (KW is the interviewer):
KW: I want to note that many times in your book you talk about the embryos and eggs of the shrimp and other sea life and how effluents from Formosa and Alcoa are killing them. Do you have any thoughts on the term "pro-life" that is so heavily used by Republicans and how that idea might apply to the situation where you are?
Diane Wilson: I believe if the male of the species had babies there would be universal pro-choice. I think this idea of pro-life has more to do with control over the bodies and minds of women and is so hotly defended by the religious right because they consider the bodies of women and the body of the earth inherently evil. I don't think it is a coincidence that the killings at abortion clinics have sometimes been by Assembly of God (Pentecostal) members. I was raised Pentecostal so I've been a fly on that wall.
Not quite something you'd read here on the Range.

Despite the writing style of the book and views with which I disagree, I think Ms. Wilson's book could reveal to people (if they can manage to actually read it) the inequity of the battle in America to balance the risks of industry with the need to provide economic opportunities and meet consumer needs. All of life is about finding such a balance beginning within a family and progressing up through levels of society to a nation and the world. Currently the ability to have frank discussions to reach that balance is nonexistent. As long as companies hold the control they have in lobbying and the legal system, it's a long slow fight.

I find myself wondering now about the origins of the plastic in Legos, Playmobile sets and all those parts and pieces of the stuff of our lives. Sigh. Hopefully we're not contributing too much to the degradation of the world and the exploitation of workers and their families in Texas or a third-world country.


  1. Fascinating...

    There's so much in our everyday environment to think about and worry about its effects. Sometimes it makes me nuts...

    Do I remember hearing about her on the news a handful of years back?

  2. Monica, you probably have heard about her. She's staged some protests, gone on hunger strikes and been arrested something like 13 times.

    I will say that reading books like this reminds me why we moved out to the country - growing our own food and the like.


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