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by John Q McDonald --- 3 February 2015

The Wives of Los Alamos

by TaraShea Nesbit

The men who built the first atomic bomb during World War 2 are either heroes or demons, depending on your thoughts about the effect of that bomb on Japan, on tens of thousands of the dead, on world history, on the possibly hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers who didn't have to die in an invasion of Japan, on the rapid end to that brutal war. We can no longer be certain of the moral clarity of that moment. History has taught us ambiguity on that point. But, in the moment, at that time, building that bomb seemed inevitable. On one hand, the bomb was an enormous scientific achievement, of which its creators should be proud. On the other hand, that bomb unleashed an infernal death upon tens of thousands, many of whom were civilians, and began the long Cold War, from which we are still recovering. So, what was it like to be there, at that time, there in Los Alamos, at the birth of the Atomic Age? As many as a couple thousand people worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory when the bomb was being built there. It was a big enough project that the military had the scientists and their immediate families moved there. They lived on site for the duration, mostly in strict secrecy, and some remained there after the war. So, what was it like to be there? Many books have told many stories about that time and place. Here, author TareShea Nesbit sets out to tell the story again, this time from the point of view of many of the women who accompanied their men to the desert highlands of New Mexico.

Nesbit tells us the story of the women of Los Alamos, their own struggles with isolation, the mystery of the work their men do, and the social network they create amongst themselves. It is a vibrant and engrossing story, with all the giant historical events happening just offstage. The author takes the risky step of telling the story in a sprawling first person plural. We encounter these women as a group, rather than through any more enfolding individual story. As a result, Nesbit sets the story at a slight distance from the reader. Since she has to tell us about the sometimes contradictory experiences of the group as a whole, we don't learn about any one story's arc. In the end, the book is highly atmospheric. We do feel some of what it must have been like to be there, but we, the first person plural readers, never get really close to the experience. The book is almost more history and a melange of memoir than a novel. And yet, there is something redeeming about this unusual approach. It does have an atmospheric quality that keeps us engaged, despite its somewhat off-putting style. The women, and their men, come away feeling conflicted and contradictory about their role in history, and we come away feeling a little unsure about their story, as well.

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See also: [The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel] [Astro Turf by M. G. Lord]

[Other books by Women Authors]