05 December 2015

Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

Summary from Goodreads:
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown---from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster---and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Comprised of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.

The Chernobyl disaster is one of those events that loomed over my grade school/middle school current events topics.  Radioactive cloud.  Meltdown.  If you're eight or nine, what do these words even mean?  Mostly fear, and this was long before I learned about Three-Mile Island and how close we came in the United States to a similar disaster.

Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, conducted a series of interviews with survivors of Chernobyl and their family members.  If I read the dates correctly, these interviews were conducted in the early- to mid-1990s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Rather than assemble the information into a traditional history book, Alexievich chose to present it as oral history.

This editorial choice has created a devastating book to read.  It would have been a sad and horrifying narrative about a disaster that could have been prevented - and much of the subsequent human suffering and illness alleviated by having infrastructure and information that was actually based on fact and not dogma - just as a conventional work of journalism.  However, presenting the transcribed interviews with minimal editing was a choice that presented a gutting and damning work.  It will haunt you.  Voices from Chernobyl is a must-read for anyone involved in public health, public administration, disaster preparaedness, et cetera.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

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