An acclaimed first novel for young adults about living in a polluted, industrial wasteland was shaped by the inaction of Town of Tonawanda and other government officials regarding environmental health problems.
Corina Vacco, now of Berkeley, Calif., was inspired to write “My Chemical Mountain,” published the DelaCorte Press imprint of Random House Children’s Books, during her years living in Buffalo from 2004 to 2008 while her husband, Howie, a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, was stationed locally.
The book follows three friends, Jason, Charlie and Cornpup, who despise the pollution in their Buffalo suburb and take reckless chances with exposure in the industrial yards, creek and landfills before their involvement against a predatory corporation leads to change.
Vacco said that when she learned her husband was being assigned to Buffalo, she went online.
“I started reading about Love Canal and the Manhattan Project and said to my husband, ‘Oh, my goodness, where are we moving?’ At that time, we didn’t know anything about the City of Buffalo, or how cool it was. I was thinking about snow and pollution,” Vacco said.
She was no stranger to environmental issues. Vacco grew up in Marengo, Ill., where her mother, an environmental activist, dragged her to protests.
“I was so embarrassed by it as a kid. There was no pollution in our town, so I really thought she was crazy and people would think badly of her,” Vacco recalled.
In Buffalo, she began to hear stories from people about how pollution affected their lives. One friend, a gardener who lived near a landfill, showed her a letter from the City of Tonawanda advising her not to grow vegetables. Others told her of playing as children in toxic landfills, or on a cold patch of ground no one could ever explain.
Then, a town meeting opened Vacco’s eyes even more.
“I walked in and there was a panel of industry representatives – the usual suspects, with an Army Corps of Engineers representative with all his medals. After a while, you could feel the hope being sucked out of the room, because everyone who had a concern was dismissed,” she said.
When Vacco asked about the potential dangers of mixing various chemicals together, she said she received similar treatment.
“I decided I wanted to write about it. I’ve always processed everything through writing,” she said.
Vacco responded to an open call for manuscripts from Random House. The book, the only one selected out of 700 submissions, was published in June and won the Delacorte Prize for a first young adult novel.
The book has garnered positive reviews. “Grim but impressive debut ... Lyrical prose and strong characters make it worth the read,” Publishers Weekly wrote.
Vacco also now views her mother’s activism differently. “My mom is now my hero, and I’m proud of what she taught me,” she said.
Since finishing the book, she has collected stories from people living in other polluted communities. An email from El Salvador told of a mountain of computer monitors,which kids would play on and remove the chips from to sell for candy money. An email from Illinois described how someone grew up swimming in water that turned an unusual shade of green. The writer grew up believing it was from a pickle factory.
Someone from Tonawanda also thanked her, saying that for a long time people there had felt invisible.
“People who live in towns that face these kinds of challenges are not invisible. I was there, I was angry alongside them, and I just hope my book adds to the conversation, and can make a difference in some way,” she said.
Vacco said she’s grateful to have lived in the Buffalo area.
“Of all the places we’ve lived with our military moves, Buffalo is the place that most surprised me, and that I miss the most,” she said.