Raising Elijah:
Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis

by Sandra Steingraber

Da Capo Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-738-21399-6.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 12/13/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Part lyrical parenting memoir, part hard-hitting, meticulously researched advocacy, Raising Elijah is not a light read. But if you care about the health of our children and the planet that nourishes all of us, it's darn near essential. Just don't try to read it all at once. This is a powerful and empowering book: take it slowly and let Steingraber's facts and passion for a healthy world seep in and become part of your understanding; let them guide your daily choices in life.

In ten chapters Ranging from "Milk (and Terror)" to "Bicycles on Main Street (and Slickwater Hydraulic Fracking)," Steingraber takes an articulate and passionate look at the environment in which we raise our children. She covers PCBs and the effect of terrorist attacks on nursing mothers; arsenic in the treated wood of playground equipment; food choices and their effect not only on developing children's bodies, but on the world they'll inhabit as adults; PVC, asbestos, lead paint and other toxic building products; bats and our personal, everyday contributions to climate change; common neurotoxins (there are far more than you'll imagine) and their effect on developing brains; endocrine disruptors and children's genderedness; and fracking, the fracturing of shale layers (using toxic chemicals) to release trapped natural gas for our voracious energy consumption.

In one of my favorite chapters, "Pizza (and Ecosystem Services)," Steingraber considers whether organic food is really worth the extra expense to her household's meager budget. She analyzes the cost of the ingredients in her family's favorite meal: pizza (recipe included at the end of the chapter). Here's part of what she discovers about the cost of food:

Driven by concerns about childhood obesity, the high price of cheap food is currently receiving well-deserved attention. And therein lies growing public acknowledgement that the money we hand to supermarket cashiers is only part of the price we pay for a form of agriculture that makes a twelve-pack of Ding Dongs cheaper than a bag of apples. Not appearing on the cash register receipt that flutters from a bag of groceries are the costs of treating obesity-related cancers, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Right behind this critique lies another one: This same system of agriculture that fills store shelves with Ding Dongs requires pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to function, and this dependency, too, carries hidden economic price tags. These include higher utility bills triggered by the need to filter farm chemicals out of tap water; lost productivity caused by the pesticide poisoning of farmer workers; higher taxes to pay for elaborate systems to monitor pesticides; loss of revenues prompted by poisoned honeybees, contaminated sport fish, and closed swimming beaches; and higher insurance premiums stoked by antibiotic-resistant infections and increased cancers caused by a thinning ozone layer.

Considering all that, she concludes, "buying organic food is a good deal."

Each chapter begins and ends with a parenting vignette, and many of them are poignant, illustrating the clear-eyed wisdom of children, a powerful innocence we forget about—or dismiss—as we grow up. Steingraber uses memoir to introduce facts, and does it so effectively that the reader is sucked right in, regardless of whether we really wanted to know what she's going to tell us. That makes the book an instructive one for writers as well, especially those of use who tell life stories. How does she keep the balance between memoir and journalism? How does she make bad news lyrical and wise?

She does it by searching for the beauty in her subject, and being self-aware, as this response to an interview question shows: "I discovered that composing in the past tense offered me more flexibility to move through time and provide commentary on the action. The past tense is a roomier house. And we are a messy family."

Raising Elijah is ultimately a compelling and surprisingly hopeful work—one that will stick with you long after you've turned the final page.

Biologist and poet Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., is the author of Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, and Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and Environment, now the subject of an award-winning documentary. Steingraber has received the Rachel Carson Leadership Award from Chatham College, the Environmental Health Champion Award from the Physicians for Social Responsibility, and from Healthy Child, Healthy World, the Mom on a Mission Award for Prevention. She is a scholar in residence at Ithaca Collage, and a columnist and contributing editor at Orion Magazine. Visit her website.

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