Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

Historical fiction comes in two basic flavors: the kind that teaches you about history as you read it (e.g., The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, 1008 pages about building a 12th century cathedral), and the kind that is more opaque, where the history, while important, is not so spelled out. I like both kinds, but I often get more of a kick out of the second type, especially when the historical details intrigue me enough to go off and read more on my own, later.

The Wives of Los Alamos is definitely in the second category. In spare prose, author TaraShea Nesbit tells the story of the community of scientists and their families who lived and worked in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the 1940’s, where the scientists developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most of the scientists were civilian men, formerly university professors, many of them with families and children. The U.S. government moved them to New Mexico where they worked for years under top secret conditions. Their families were kept in the dark about the nature of their work, and everyone’s contact with family members and friends from outside the community was strictly monitored. In some cases, where a scientist was well known within the field, names were changed as well. The restricted nature of their lives meant that the women, especially, formed close bonds with one another as they attempted to create a semblance of normal life in the isolated desert community.

Nesbit reinforces the women’s closeness by writing this novel in third person plural, which I thought would bother me, but which didn’t. The wives speak as a group, about their children, the landscape, and the difficulties of being cut off from extended family. They reveal both the petty (whose government- issue house has a coveted bathtub) and the frightening aspects of their lives (what, exactly, are their husbands working on? Something very dangerous.).

Real historical figures inhabit this novel (Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr) but their influence is minimal. It’s not the kind of historical novel where you play “guess who this character is?” It’s more diffuse than that, because of the third person narrative voice and also because it’s mostly about the wives, whose names we don’t know anyway. After I finished reading it I read the Wikipedia articles about the Manhattan Project. On her website, Nesbit recommends another book, The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, which is nonfiction, about the women who worked in the secret Oak Ridge, Tennessee uranium separating plant. Now I want to read that, too.

(Book 19, 2014)


LINDA from Each Little World said...

I tried reading "The Girls . . ." and found it hard going, rather disjointed if I am remembering correctly. There were a couple of UW-Madison profs involved in this as well.

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