Review: ‘Full Body Burden’ by Kristen Iversen

by Kim on July 23, 2012 · 6 comments

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Title: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats
Author: Kristen Iversen
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2012
Publisher: Crown
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★½

Tiny Note: Parts of this post originally appeared on Book Riot.

Review: When Kristen Iversen was a child, she and her family moved to a small subdivision just outside of Denver. Their neighborhood was downwind from Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons facility that produced plutonium bomb components. At one time, Rocky Flats was identified as the most contaminated site in the United States. Neither Iversen nor her family nor her neighbors knew what was produced at the factory. When asked, Iversen’s mother often guessed cleaning supplies. Besides, Iversen and her family had more important things to worry about — paying the bills, dealing with boys, and surviving their father’s alcohol-induced neglect.

As Iversen grew older, her perspective on Rocky Flats shifted, first from blissful ingnorance, then to skepticism, then to frustration and anger. Full Body Burden is a narrative account both of Iversen’s life growing up in the shadow of Rocky Flats and a history of the weapons plant. It’s a story about idealistic dreamers, inattentive government officials, and criminally negligent corporations that I found alternately fascinating, reage-inducing, funny, and melacholy within a single chapter. I think Full Body Burden will end up being one of the most important books I read this year.

It took me a long time to see how the two narrative threads of this story — Iversen’s childhood and the history of the Rocky Flats — came together. For much of the book, it seemed as if the only reason they were being told together was because of geographic proximity. However, the two strands to eventually come together in a way that gives some emotional heft to the story of Rocky Flats that makes the government neglect of the facility seem much more atrocious.

From what I can tell, Full Body Burden is an impecably researched book, although Iversen does write with a pretty clear undertone of frustration, maybe even rage, at the people responsible for Rocky Flats. I didn’t know much about this facility before reading about it here, but it’s clear Iversen is both invested in telling this story and willing to dig deep trying to find the answers. However, she doesn’t get bogged down in government reports or documents — every section has a human element, and every person she mentions (from a plant security guard to a secretary in the Rocky Flats office) has their own story. It’s a truly humanized look at what the fallout (both chemical and personal) from a place like this can be.

Full Body Burden is a really, really important book, particularly for anyone who lives near Denver and the remnants of the facility. But even if there’s no chance you might find yourself near the land that formerly housed Rocky Flats, Full Body Burden is a well-written and well-documented look at the level of neglect government and corporate officials could be willing to stoop to if given the kind of free reign they were given at Rocky Flats. (I know that last sentence makes me sound like a raging, anti-government hippie, but this book really made me angry [ in a good way]).

This NPR interview with Iversen gives a much more thorough overview of the book, if you’re curious to read more before picking it up.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion(Kathy) July 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I have a feeling that things like that have gone on other places too. This sounds like a must read.

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susan July 24, 2012 at 8:25 am

This book does sound really important. I think I’ll check out the NPR interview & then the book. thanks!

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Jessica July 24, 2012 at 9:48 am

It is on my To Be Read pile! I “won” an advanced reader’s copy and also heard the Fresh Air interview.

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Kim July 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm

I hope you like it!

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Christy August 11, 2012 at 9:45 am

I heard the interview on NPR too and I was definitely interested in the book, and hoping it was as good as it sounded. Glad to know that the two threads do work together well, because I was wondering about that when I heard the book’s description.

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