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On a Farther Shore

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Silent Spring," William Souder offers a compelling portrait of Rachel Carson and the birth of the environmental controversies we know today.

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Souder paints a portrait of a gentle, unassuming woman who was nevertheless ambitious, a woman who revised her writing endlessly and often turned in manuscripts years late – "Silent Spring" was originally slated for publication in early 1960 – and who tirelessly advocated for her own work, chastising her publishers when she felt they failed to adequately promote her books.

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Souder, a science writer whose book about John James Audubon was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in biography, clearly admires Carson, and readers of "On a Farther Shore" will find themselves rooting for and sympathizing with his protagonist too, as she struggles to financially support her mother and orphaned nephew, as she slaves over revisions, and as she navigates her own failing health and succumbs to cancer in her 50s soon after the publication of "Silent Spring."

But even today, Carson is not universally admired. One of the substances she indicts in her book is DDT, a pesticide that was used to control disease-carrying insects and decrease malaria in many parts of the world. Carson’s detractors accuse her of causing the suspension of anti-malaria DDT programs in Africa and indirectly leading to millions of deaths. Souder points out that Carson's tunnel vision, a trait she exhibited throughout her life, probably contributed to her decision to focus almost exclusively on the negatives of pesticides. But he largely dismisses Carson’s critics. Souder explains that Carson never advocated for the complete elimination of pesticides – she simply warned against the wanton application of these substances. Souder also writes that even before "Silent Spring," officials were wondering whether the malaria program would become less effective as mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT.

Souder’s narrative sometimes loses focus, such as in a chapter he devotes largely to a biography of Henry Williamson, an English nature writer Carson admired. But by and large Souder's work is a compelling and compulsively readable portrait of one of the most influential writers of the last 50 years; a fascinating glimpse into the history of science’s dark incursions and excesses; and an illuminating portrait of the birth of the environmental controversies we know today.

Emily Cataneo is a journalist and book critic based in Boston.

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