I won’t call Kristen Iversen lucky. She grew up “in the nuclear shadow” of a facility that processed plutonium for nuclear warheads. No pot of gold there. But as an aspiring writer obsessed with the environment, culture and investigative journalism, I have to marvel at the incredible story in which she found herself.
Full Body Burden is bold and beautifully composed. Full of portent, it recounts the twin tales of Iversen’s family and the nearby Rocky Flats complex. Both were crumbling, due to alcoholism and poor management, respectively. Both were fixed on “keeping up appearances.” And both drew black marks on the otherwise sunny innocence of Denver suburbia. As radiation spread into air and water, Iversen dreamed about boys, her neighbors tidied their houses, and kids splashed around in the town’s lake. Although Iversen’s sister protested at the factory and sat in on activist meetings, the author never considered herself “one of those people.”
Instead, in the beginning, Iversen acquaints us with her world of meadowlarks, dusty trails and the smell of fresh hay. This sense of environmental identity resonated with me, although my childhood was all whip-poor-wills and creek beds. I learned how Colorado’s seasons change with Chinook winds and cottonwood buds. Iversen’s horse is her retreat. Her “eyes filled with tears from the wind” while riding or learning to rock climb with her boyfriend, and characters move across the page.
Iversen’s vivid sense of place grants instant familiarity, and all the while Rocky Flats looms in the background. There, too, drama unfolds, where the author has sewn together narratives about plutonium meltdowns and FBI takeovers. Returning home as an adult, she lands a job typing incident reports during the facility’s cleanup. Everything clicks. The stories converge. The factory on the hill is now a common office, and out of the shadows, these workers are real people. That complicates the good-and-evil plot many activists like to tell. Environmental justice and self-sustaining become blurred in real life, even after meticulous research indicates outright negligence. The workers aren’t to blame. It’s the government cover-up.
Although Full Body Burden is paced like a novel, facts derive from stacks of task force reports, primary interviews, legal hearings and dozens of old newspaper articles. Accusations come cold and calculated, with the reader left to decide where the operation went wrong. Meanwhile, Iversen identifies the root problem: a cultural propensity for silence. We see it after the Cold War, and we see it in her own family. Even after one of her father’s car accidents breaks Iversen’s neck, she doesn’t tell him for years. “Silence is an easy habit for a family or a community,” she writes. I read this and get chills.
By bearing witness to Rocky Flats’ blunders, Iversen breaks the silence. Full Body Burden serves as a powerful model for storytelling, for anyone who feels breaches of justice personally, for anyone who deeply cares about where they live and strive to ensure it’s protected. I couldn’t put this book down. I read it by flashlight in a van on a trip to Nebraska and snuck a few pages in during classes. When Spring Break forced me to sacrifice the book for less weight, I instead told the story to anyone who would listen. We all should. If there’s one takeaway from this book, it’s that silence will spoil progress. So it’s on all of us to keep talking.
Full Body Burden is available in hardcover online or at all fine bookstores. You can pre-order the paperback at the author’s website.