Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey

Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

A quarter century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America.  The city had been dumping sewage into if for generations, coating the seafloor with a layer of "black mayonnaise."  Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as "beach whistles."

In the 1990s, work began on a state-of-the-art treatment plant and a 10-mile-long tunnel - its endpoint stretching farther from civilization than the Earth's deepest ocean trench - to carry waste out of the harbor.  With this impressive feat of engineering, Boston was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin.  But when bad decisions and clashing corporations endangered the project, a team of commercial divers was sent on a perilous mission to rescue the stymied cleanup effort.  Five divers went in; not all of them came out alive.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews an thousands of documents collected over five years of reporting, award winning writer Neil Swidey takes us deep into the lives of the divers, engineers, politicians, lawyers, and investigators involved int he tragedy and its aftermath, creating a taut, action-packed narrative. The climax comes just after the hard-partying DJ Gillis and his friend Billy Juse trade assignments as they head into the tunnel, sentencing one of them to death.

Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant

One of my biggest joys in having a book blog, is in being able to read nonfiction books I would never have heard of otherwise.  I've always read nonfiction, but in the past, is was on subjects I already knew about, or it was a book someone had suggested, or given to me. Blogging has opened my nonfiction eyes, in ways I never though about, when I started Wordsmithonia.  I've been exposed to people and events I have never heard of, been fascinated by subjects I would never have thought about on my own, and most of all, it's given me a better sense of the way other people view the world.

With Trapped Under the Sea, I feel as if a piece of our country's history, which I would almost bet most people outside of Massachusetts aren't familiar with, has been exposed for all of us to see.  Our national media seems to focus on the latest political scandal, or piece of celebrity gossip.  Stories that should be making national headlines don't.  I think it would be safe to say that more people know about Britney Spears shaving her head, than know the names of the men who lost their lives in the Deer Island tunnel.  And I would also think it's fair to say that even the majority of the people who were exposed to this story in the news, don't remember it now, and probably never knew a ton of the details to begin with.

From what I can gather, this book actually started off as two part story in The Boston Globe Magazine. Running in August of 2009, Swidey delved into the lives of the divers involved, and finally put voice to their story.  What started off as that two piece story, has turned into one of the best examples of narrative nonfiction I've had the privilege to read in quite a while.

Most of you already know that I'm a huge fan of the two Mitchell Zuckoff books that I have read.  Frozen in Time and Lost in Shangri-La, are two of the best examples I can give of what a good narrative flow is in a nonfiction book.  Both, Mitchell Zuckoff and Neil Swidey, have a way of telling a story in its most natural form.  Trapped Under the Sea reads like a well crafted novel.  This is not a dry spewing forth of names, dates, and events.  This is a well written, compelling story of the lives of those affected by the tunnel disaster, and of those that contributed to it's happening.  It's a fascinating look at the decisions that led to this event, and it doesn't shy away from the consequences of it either.  Where most authors may have ended the story at it's logical conclusion, Swidey takes us into the aftermath, chronicling not only the investigation, but how the personal lives of those involved were changed by the events that day.  It doesn't shy away from the messy details, or the negative ways in which the men who survived, spiraled out after the disaster.

I'm sure some are going to read this book as an indictment of the greedy corporate climate, that so many like to point fingers at.  And I'm sure that they would be valid in those thoughts, even if that's not what I took away from this book.  Instead, Trapped Under the Sea, was a celebration of the human spirit and drive that compels so many of us forward..  

It celebrates the men who would even think of going into a 9.5 mile long tunnel under the sea bed.  It glorifies the spirit of those would would do so, even into an environment that has no breathable air, or any safe way out if something were to go wrong.  It makes us proud to be part of a species that can even dream that big, who even thinks of building a tunnel that far out to sea.  It honors all of those who have given up their lives, in the name of human progress and innovation.  It's a testament to what has driven this country since it's founding, but it's also a warning of what happens when the goal becomes more important than the lives of those trying to reach it.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books, for this review.


Unknown said...

Great review! I love the way you described the engaging writing style. This book does sound very well written and interesting.

Cecelia said...

You're right - I'd never heard of this tragedy/issue/story! Crazy. And your review is tempting me to pick up a book I *never* would have touched on my own. The joys of blogging, eh?