RICHLAND, Wash. - Radioactive waste doesn't seem like obvious inspiration for a children's story. But in fact, comic books are full of tales that involve radiation. Think Spider-Man.
Royce Buckingham, author of "The Dead Boys,"
"The Dead Boys" bookcover.
Now a Northwest author has written a new children's thriller about a radioactive-waste-slurping sycamore tree. It's set near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington.
The federal government spends billions of dollars each year to clean up Hanford. That legacy of WWII and the Cold War is so strong here, that even Richland High School's mascot is an atomic mushroom cloud. The football team is called the Bombers.
Royce Buckingham: "My editors crossed it out and said you can't put that in there it's not believable."
But it's the kind of home-town detail Royce Buckingham reveled in, in his book "The Dead Boys."
Royce Buckingham: "So we ended up buying a t-shirt from the Richland Bomber's boosters and sending it to him for Christmas. And I was able to keep that reference in the story."
Buckingham spins a yarn about the place where he grew up, trolling abandoned irrigation ditches for lizards. He says he's a father himself now, and admits the book isn't for easily-frightened children. It tells the story about a tree that sucks up radioactive contamination.
Author Royce Buckingham reading from "The Dead Boys": "Its roots ran far and deep through the dry sand to find what it needed. And when they finally reached the huge Columbia River it drank heartily. But it found something else in the water it hadn't expected, warm energy similar to the kind it drew from the sun. The tree soaked up the new radiation directly into its porous wood, it couldn't know that the energy came from the Hanford Nuclear Plant upriver."
Contaminated now, the tree turns evil and drains the energy of small boys like batteries. Buckingham says Hanford's nuclear legacy has pushed and pulled him his whole life. He says during his childhood in Richland, most everyone was "pro-nuke." But then at a liberal arts college in Walla Walla not too many people thought nuclear power and the bomb were so great.
Royce Buckingham: "This is all part of my makeup and my dad's paycheck was directly linked to nuclear power. Then when I grew up and read that there was nuclear waste in my drinking water and things that was of course a revelation. People said oh no, that's no problem, but we grew up and yeah there are some problems."
Buckingham says his influences include the old 50s movie "THEM," and other old radioactively-fueled flicks, comics and super heroes.
Historian Allan Winkler is the author of "Life Under A Cloud." He says it's probably not coincidental that there's more interest in stories like Buckingham's.
Allan Winkler: "I think the fact that we are in difficult economic times leads to a kind of increase in paranoid fears and the like. I don't think that radiation is any more lethal now than it was 15, 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, but I think our perceptions of it can change depending on external circumstances."
Royce Buckingham says that bigger-picture stuff aside; he really just wanted to write an entertaining story for pre-teens. He says his first audience is his 10 and 6 year old boys.
Royce Buckingham: "My son typically says, 'Yeah, I liked it.' And I will say, 'Was it as good as Harry Potter?' And he says, 'No, but it's pretty good.'"
Buckingham says he doesn't want to preach. He'd rather help children think for themselves about the big questions of radioactive contamination, nuclear power and war.
Buckingham lives with his family in Bellingham, far from Hanford. But like his fictional sycamore tree, he remains deeply rooted in the desert landscape of his youth and America's nuclear legacy.
Copyright 2010 Northwest Public Radio