Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos

If you have enjoyed past posts about the Manhattan Project and Oak Ridge, or if you have enjoyed either of the Oak Ridge/Manhattan Project books I've reviewed, you will probably enjoy The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit.

Los Alamos was one of the three principal sites of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to design and build the world's first atomic weapons. To review, Los Alamos was the site responsible for designing and building the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, using fuels supplied by Oak Ridge and Hanford.

Although Ms Nesbit calls her book a novel, it's unlike any novel I have ever read. To me, it fell into a grey area between fiction and non-fiction. It reads more like an aggregated, collective memoir. She tells the stories of the wives who accompanied their scientist husbands to a remote mesa in New Mexico, the minutiae of living in a town under construction, war-time shortages, raising children, building community, being cut off from families and the rest of the world, and not knowing why they were there, except for "the war effort." Her voice is that of all the wives; "we wondered about..., we wore ...," etc. She tells of the aliases the families were given and the distracting answers they were given to answer questions that never should have been asked. She speaks of "the Director" and of "the General" without ever saying "Oppenheimer" or "Groves," but we know who she means and we share her secret. And at the end, as the scientists and their families deal with what they have created, say goodbye to colleagues and neighbors, and prepare to return to their universities or seek new jobs, we share some of their conflicted emotions about the experience.

When my wife and I first visited Los Alamos in the early 1970s, we had already lived in Oak Ridge for nearly four years and had heard many stories about life during the war years. Entering Los Alamos was almost like entering a slightly different Oak Ridge. The houses were of the same age, many of the same design. The greatest difference seemed to be that the deciduous trees of Oak Ridge had been replaced with pines. And the stories Nesbit tells are both the same and different from the Oak Ridge stories; it's like entering a slightly different Oak Ridge.