The Wives of Los Alamos.
Bloomsbury. 2014. 230 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 4782 4.
In 1943, nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer was given the task of establishing a secret bomb-development laboratory in an isolated location in America. He chose a Ranch School in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which the American government acquired for the purpose, and he set about recruiting a staff of highly qualified scientists.
Most of the scientists were men, most were married, and their families were allowed to join them. Some were American, some British, and some had been born in countries that were then being ravaged by war. To begin with, none of them knew exactly where they were going or what to expect.
For the men, the work was challenging and intensive, and the hours were long, but they had a goal and a reason for being there.
For their wives, the move meant an almost complete loss of identity and purpose. They left their homes, jobs, parents, family, friends, social networks, and connections, to move, initially, to an unknown location. They could not even tell their children where they were going, because they did not know themselves until they got there. The only address they could give to anyone was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe.
They arrived at a closely guarded, barbed-wire-surrounded area, where the small wooden buildings in which most of them were to live were still being built; where essential facilities like water and electricity were often restricted; and where all letters in and out were censored. For some of them, even their names were changed so that they sounded more American: Mrs Meuller became Mrs Miller.
The culture shock for all of them, and especially for their children, must have been immense. TaraShea Nesbit conveys vividly how they felt, what life was like for them, and how they adapted—or did not. Nesbit traces the women's lives from their first move to Los Alamos to their departure a few years later, and, briefly, what some of their lives were like in the following years. Her choice of the collective "we" brings their experiences close, includes the reader in their lives, and makes everything feel personal. This style takes a little getting used to, but it works well when she describes "our husbands," the difficulties "we" faced, the things "we" hated and loved, the new friendships "we" made, and the changes "we" saw in "our" children as they grew up. At times, however, it is awkward: "One night we found our husbands, or someone else's husband, sitting in the middle of the children's sand box..."
Oppenheimer and The General (Leslie Groves), the scientists, the GI's—Los Alamos was a US Army establishment, although the scientists were civilians—the first detonation of the Atomic bomb: all these come alive in this book, so that the horrific news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its civilian populations is immensely moving. And the mixed reactions of "our husbands" to this news easily become part of our experience. Husbands, wives, and later on, grown-up children, all respond to the development and use of the bomb in very different ways.
TaraShea Nesbit's imaginative empathy with the wives of Los Alamos, and her skill in conveying their many experiences, thoughts and feelings, makes this a remarkable and unusual first novel. She is certainly a writer to watch.
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