April 28, 2011


All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel. By Dan Yaccarino. Knopf. $16.99.

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. By Sandra Steingraber. Da Capo. $26.

     “Work hard, enjoy life and love your family.” These words, or variations on them, are the verbal glue that joins the story of four generations of Dan Yaccarino’s family. The visual glue is a little shovel, first used to help plants crops in Sorrento, Italy, then used for measuring flour and sugar in the United States, then to measure out dried fruit and nuts to sell from a pushcart, and so on. Family connections are paramount throughout the warm narrative of All the Way to America – for example, the recipe for tomato sauce that started in Sorrento later re-emerges as a specialty of a family-run Italian restaurant in the New World. Using stylized drawings that nevertheless clearly bear resemblances to his real family members, Yaccarino eventually shows his own use of the old family shovel – and then his children’s use of it to plant seeds, now not in an Italian field but for a rooftop garden in New York City. The palpable sense of enjoyment of family continuity is the main message here, and Yaccarino’s delight in telling the story is quite apparent. The tale omits any notion of significant difficulty or hardship in the immigrant experience, and many of today’s families are unlikely to have the strong sense of the past and of their own roots that Yaccarino’s clearly possesses. So the book is certainly somewhat na├»ve, and its pleasantly positive take on the multigenerational experience will not necessarily resonate with many readers. Indeed, for some it will seem like a fairy tale, despite Yaccarino’s repeated efforts to show what really happened. But the book’s warm feelings should even come through to readers who cannot relate to the specifics of Yaccarino’s family’s story.

     The reality that today’s children face is a chillier one – downright chilling, in fact, according to Sandra Steingraber. Steingraber is easily dismissible as an environmental alarmist: everything is toxic, all companies are evil, all products are bad for you, and the only solution is much, much greater government control. But this characterization, although not wholly inaccurate, is a vast oversimplification. Scientists have long known that the extraordinary advances in prolonging human life have been accompanied, in other (and sometimes related) fields, by progress that comes at a high cost in terms of people’s health. Living longer is not always the same as living well. Steingraber is especially concerned in Raising Elijah with the effects of environmental toxins on children – although, again, readers need to be careful not to follow childhood-focused arguments too far, since they have been and are being used for all sorts of governmental overreaching (e.g., limiting adult access to pornography because some children whose parents do not police their behavior carefully enough might end up seeing it or even becoming ensnared in it). Steingraber’s narrative structure for this book is attractive: an ecologist, she looks at the “ecology” of her own family as she discusses both home-centered and public-policy issues. But again and again, she hammers home the same serious message: the modern environment is super-dangerous, especially to children, and government must do something about it. Her arguments make more emotional than scientific sense, although she does attempt to bring in science to back them up. The problem is that her interpretation of the science is often fundamentally flawed. For example, she complains that policymaking and scientific discovery are based, in effect, on the premise that the whole population consists of middle-aged men. That is utter nonsense: clinical trials have traditionally been done on adult males because the testing of unknown substances and circumstances carries greater risk to women (who are childbearers) and children (whose bodies are developing). But rather than applaud the exclusion of women and children from double-blind scientific studies, Steingraber (who would surely never place her own children in such trials) bemoans a structure that is in fact sensitive to the special characteristics of children and women of childbearing age. Steingraber also vastly romanticizes such alternatives to fossil-fuel-using technology as push mowers and clotheslines. Clotheslines in inner cities – or in geographic areas of high humidity? Push mowers for parents who are having children when older and may need their strength for, say, taking care of their kids? All right – those criticisms are mean-spirited simplifications. But that is just what Steingraber’s own commentaries on modern society are. She would love to return to a world of no risk, pure water, clean air, and plenty of time for parents to raise their children in tune with the natural order of things – that is, to a world that never existed. And she wants government – government! – to take us there. No matter how thoughtful and ecologically concerned a parent may be, he or she really should think twice, and then twice again, before imagining that a larger, more intrusive, more heavy-handed government will ever find a way to simplify life – much less to move us closer to a nonexistent utopian ideal.

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