Book Shelf, Book1-An Unreasonabe Woman: A True Story Of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters And The Fight For Seadrift, Texas

May 15, 2006


By Diane Wilson Chelsea 
Green, $27

Hell hath no greater fury than a maverick Texas shrimper lady who gets her hands on a TRI report.

Blame it on an Associated Press wire story, but the simple facts laid out about her country's industrial emissions created an activist out of Texas coastal native Diane Wilson.

"An Unreasonable Woman" is the colorful and entertaining tale of the evolution, misadventures and short-lived triumphs of a unique, grassroots environmental activist.

Wilson's story is sure to pluck chords with environmental journalists who have known and worked with homegrown activists, or have themselves sniffed blood on the trail of large, polluting corporations.

The tense meetings, the huge phone bills, the anonymous tips – it's all here in this rich tale.

Like any good storyteller, Wilson has the advantage of knowing exactly what she is trying to teach her audience. She gives a compelling portrait of her home – the small shrimp town of Seadrift, Texas – and she sticks to the essential crazy element of her quest to protect the bays around home. It's worth reading her story if only to be reminded that environmental stories and the people who are in them need not be dry.

Seadrift is populated with characters with hilarious nicknames, like Howdy Doody, the local banker, and Deputy Dawg, a shrimper. But you don't need a wild name to get up to all sorts of mischief in Seadrift or a sleek corporate boardroom in Houston.

Once she connects the dots between industrial chemicals and the slow, ugly death of Lavaca Bay, Wilson begins fomenting a storm from Seadrift to boardrooms in Taiwan.

Wilson has a frustrating tendency to ignore dates and other facts useful in non-fiction accounts. She tells her story as a series of events that build on one another and one has little sense of the spread of time between them. Regardless, it all fits together pretty seamlessly.

The action begins after Wilson reads an AP story about industrial emissions in her county. She calls a big-city lawyer and organizes a local meeting about the local emissions. Local leaders try to persuade her to back off. Wilson holds the meeting anyway and starts burning up the telephone lines at the dilapidated fish plant she manages. Wilson and her fierce sidekick Donna Sue get a visit from Froggy, the plant owner, and Wilson's brother, who just wanted to check out "two women loose as cannons.

When she finds out about a new permit proposal for a Union Carbide plant, Wilson asks for a hearing. That really sends up red flags with her industrial neighbors.

Pretty soon, local honchos and strangers in suits start showing up at the fish plant. Wilson learns to her amusement that if she agrees to tone it down and works under consensus agreement, maybe she can get her own community group, and a salary to go along with it. That sends her into gales of laughter, she reports. On the other hand, her relationship with her husband begins to suffer due to her new dedication to pollution.

As in any struggle, Wilson faces plenty of agonizing decisions that could compromise her ethics or her lifelong loyalties (for example, forming an alliance and taking donations from the "damn sportsmen"). Refreshingly, Wilson doesn't flinch from pointing the mirror at herself as much as the next guy.

One notable exception, however, is the shrimping industry. In her book, Wilson lets plenty of others accuse the commercial fisherman of looting, overfishing, etc., but she doesn't respond frankly to the criticism. Gulf Coast shrimpers have one of the worst rates of bycatch – unintentional catch of non-targeted species – of any fishery in the United States. But Wilson doesn't roll out the shrimping industry's sorry environmental record.

Elizabeth Bluemink is natural resources reporter for the the Juneau Empire and editor of Bookshelf.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue


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