Kristen Iversen grew up in picture-perfect suburbia in Arvada, Colorado, a “blueprint for the perfect place to raise a family”. Her parents elegantly sip Manhattans made “with just the right splash of whiskey and vermouth” while she and three siblings explore the great outdoors.
But behind this idyllic facade are an alcoholic father and a mother barely holding it together – material in itself for any memoir, but just up the road is an even bigger secret: the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. This “hidden factory” manufactures the plutonium triggers that form the heart of every nuclear weapon made in America between 1952 and 1989. Rocky Flats exists “under the cloak of national security”; no one knows exactly what goes on, especially not the local residents whose only concern is keeping up property values. But soon the blind acceptance of the 1950s and early 1960s gives way to alarmingly high records of cancer diagnoses, demonstrations against the threat of nuclear war, and eventually an investigation that uncovers a catalogue of lax safety procedures. Iversen explains that she wanted to write about the two things that “frightened her the most”: Rocky Flats and her father’s alcoholism. The story of Rocky Flats – deemed “the most dangerous site in the United States” – does strike terror as you read about the radiation that poisoned the ground, air and water for miles around. However, whether her literary achievement matches her social conscience is another question. This is a story of “ Dickensian” proportions, both in the “scope of the human tragedy” but also the huge cast of characters involved – something that perhaps accounts for the occasional clumsy repetition of material. Less forgivable are the trite clichés regarding plutonium, the “ darling and the demon of the nuclear age”. The book is an intriguing mix of memoir and first-class investigative journalism, a sort of Mad Men meets Erin Brockovich, but I couldn’t help but wish for something a bit more satisfying. Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030