“Final Warning”

What happens after a nuclear accident, especially to its human victims? The recent disaster in Japan is only the latest major incident to raise this question. One might also think of Chernobyl, the 1986 disaster in Soviet Ukraine, and its aftermath. Dr. Robert Peter Gale is an American who witnessed this aftermath. In “Final Warning”, he writes his personal account of living with the human tragedy of a nuclear disaster.

Dr. Gale was a medical researcher at the time, specializing in bone marrow transplants had the needed expertise in the immediate period following Chernobyl. Along with his Soviet counterparts, he oversaw the medical treatment of many afflicted by radiation burns and injuries, transplanting afflicted patients with healthy bone marrow to counteract internal damage from the nuclear accident. The book he has written is a memoir of what it was like for him as an American to deal with an unfamiliar medical system and the bureaucracy that he has to wend through to get any work done.

The resulting book, “Final Warning”, is not the worst book I ever read. After all, I did finish it. But I felt in reading it that somehow it went to press several drafts before the final one. Dr. Gale does a lot of summarization, and his narration is full of irrelevant details about his interactions with the Soviets and their culture. Seeing that the book marketed itself as a memoir about a nuclear accident and not a travel narrative in Soviet Ukraine, much of what Dr. Gale writes seems off-topic. After reading the book, I learned more about the culture shock of eating Soviet boiled beef for lunch instead of an American frozen yogurt, the lunch the American medical specialist was accustomed to stateside, than nuclear power and its dangers. There is adequate and abundant detail in the book, and he does give a good picture of what it was like to live there versus the United States. But this didn’t seem to be the original point of the book, and I wondered if Dr. Gale’s editors somehow got sent to Siberia en route to the publication of this book in forgetting that.

What does “Final Warning” say about nuclear power? Dr. Gale does give his overview and opinion at the very end of the book. His narrative regarding his personal interaction with radioactive medical patients brings a disturbing perspective to the collateral damage rendered by a nuclear accident. Difficult as this material was to read and I presume to write about, I would have preferred for the author to remain there in that dark territory. This is, after all, a narrative about a nuclear disaster that is easy to generalize, and his medical observations make it impossible to gloss over. But he didn’t, so the final product languishes somewhere between travel narrative and nuclear manifesto without really doing a very good job of either.

If you know nothing about Chernobyl and would like more than a Wikipedia entry’s worth of knowledge, Dr. Gale’s “Final Warning” is better than nothing to help enlighten you. But its meandering aimlessness waters it down, and it is disappointing that a book with such potential wastes itself on reams of trivia.