So I’m looking for a good junk food book to burn off the stress generated by end of term and all the other activities I seem to find myself caught up in, and I end up reaching for Voices from Chernobyl. ( I know , eh? Usually it would be totally the other way around.)
I’m reading it with this soundtrack of THIS IS A NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR blaring in the background, which makes it a little hard to focus on the actual literary text. Anyway, there will be a Goodreads review about that sooner or later* — probably fairly soon, as the book is short and surprisingly readable given the subject matter.
But the Chernobyl stories have their own special resonances for me because I was pregnant with Em in 1986. I was here in Toronto. My parents were in Greece. They were phoning me: be careful; don’t go outside. We were just waiting to see whether the wind from Eastern Europe would blow upwards and over the North Pole.
Later, I would have chance to meet mothers who had also had children in 1986 — and weren’t as lucky in their location. But their stories aren’t mine to tell, and anyway I can’t tell them without crying.
Part of the book is about the workers who were sent in to clean up after the explosion. The speakers are quite specific about the heroism of these young men: they knew that there was a strong chance that they would die from the radiation, but they also knew that without their actions, the deathtoll would be orders of magnitude greater. They went willingly because they knew their country needed them.
I had a student who had worked clean-up in Chernobyl. I asked whether they were given any protective equipment, and he laughed a little (because he was a funny guy) and said, “There was no point.” I don’t remember laughing.
He was around Overland for quite a while because it took him a really long time to find a job in his field: Canadian employers are somewhat wary of applicants who know a little too much about certain topics. However, last thing I heard he had a career-related job, and I assume he is still healthy.
When I think about this, I feel so fortunate. In the obvious kind of way, to have had the luck to be able to raise my children in Canada. But there’s also a more personal reaction: I’m grateful to Overland for giving me the chance to hear these stories. Sometimes there were so many stories that I felt my head would burst. They were shocking, heart-breaking, but in their own way they were beautiful. The dignity of the speakers gave human meaning to what had been incomprehensible newspaper headlines. It was an immeasurable privilege to be allowed to bear witness to them.
* and here it is
update: this came up; it seems relevant somehow — US vs. Soviet heroism perhaps?