Kate Brown Gets Up Close And Personal

19 Mar

Chelybinsk MeetingInitially excited about reading this plug for Kate Brown’s new book, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, I’m increasingly skeptical.

Brown’s willingness to chop firewood or risk harassment to get closer to the history she writes is nothing new. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she traveled throughout the collapsing Soviet empire as she helped lead a glasnost-era student-exchange program. Today, at the age of 47, she commutes to UMBC by riding a bicycle across more than three miles of Washington traffic before getting on a train.

But colleagues and students observe that Brown’s physical intrepidness is matched (and even surpassed) by her willingness to take intellectual risks. For instance, her forthcoming book, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press) is a tale of two cities: Ozersk and Richland, a city in Washington state that abuts the first major U.S. plutonium facility at Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Plutopia dives deep into the history of the military, medicine, labor, culture and the environment in both Cold War powers. Yet Brown makes few explicit comparisons or contrasts between these two cities themselves, structuring the book instead as a “tandem history” that allows the reader to use each city as a prism through which to view the other entity.

Brown also frequently inserts herself into the text, explaining how she cultivated relationships with certain informants or came to a dead end in certain archives. “Historians are reluctant to be a character in their own history,” she observes. “But the fact that we’re there affects what happens. I try to set it up in a way that I can tell a story that makes the exploration, the getting of the story, a part of the journey for the reader.”

Catherine Evtuhov, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is an admirer of how Brown marries an immediacy more often found in journalism (which is, after all, history’s first draft) to the rigor of the social sciences. “Kate does her work not in some kind of theoretical way,” Evtuhov argues, “but by going and spending a good deal of time in these places, getting people to discuss their histories. She brings some of the techniques of an investigative reporter.”

My concern is, that proximity dulls analysis. What is the value of information, when victims – perhaps the researcher, too – are unclear about the cause of their injuries? Who has the more compelling motive? How much should a reader pay for firsthand testimony, with spin?

(Disclosure: UMBC is my alma mater)

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