“The Wives of Los Alamos – A Novel” by TaraShea Nesbit

For me, the name “Los Alamos” triggers a cold shiver. This remote New Mexico location (it wasn’t a town) is where the World War II Manhattan Project was moved in order to build the first atomic bombs.

Who were these wives? They were married to scientists and engineers, often academics, hence enjoyed middle class or higher socioeconomic status. Many were young. They were told almost nothing about Los Alamos in advance. The ultimate answer to any question was “the war”. You are doing this for the war effort. Someone, somewhere, decided that, if a few hundred scientists were going to isolated for months or years, they needed some semblance of normal family life. But once the work was underway, the scientists labored behind locked gates ten or more hours per day, and could not speak a word about their activities to their wives and children.

Nesbit has not written a conventional narrative, using a looser approach which offers several versions of every situation. No one woman is followed through the three year period covered by the book.

For example, Nesbitt writes about the (often hasty) marriages that preceded the deployment to Los Alamos (p. 37):

Our brothers said we looked like movie stars, like angels, like ourselves, like ourselves but prettier, like our mothers. Or our brothers were late to our weddings because they were taking the office candidate exam. Or our brothers were not there to see us wed – they were in a bunker in Europe, they were at Army gunnery school. They were Navy bombers, and on our wedding day the newspaper reported: A Navy patrol plane with ten men aboard has been unreported since it took off on a routine training flight Friday and it is presumed lost in the Gulf, and we did not hear from our brothers on our wedding day, or the next week, or the next.

Using this approach, no experience is offered as “definitive”.

I knew a little bit about Los Alamos because my dear friends Libby and Charlie Marsh were among the residents. Charlie was a physicist. (He saw the scientists as being distinct from the engineers on the Project.) I don’t believe he was drafted. Scientists were brought into the military through other pipelines. I wish I had asked Libby and Charlie more questions. Both are deceased.

Nesbitt’s accounts of the experimental Trinity test (first nuclear explosion) and the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are particularly intense.

How could we not have known? How could we not have fully known? In retrospect, there were maybe more hints than we cared to let ourselves consider: back in Chicago, our husband’s colleague told us, Don’t be afraid of becoming a widow; if your husband blows up, you will, too…Did we turn away from the clues because our questions would be met with silence? Or because in some deep way, we did not want to know?

Or perhaps we knew this might happen all along, but we never wanted to admit it.

I highly recommend this book. Understanding the experiences of my parents’ generation isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

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