Tag Archives: creative non-fiction

“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.

Advertisements

Book Source – Recent History (Mine!)

I just recognized an important category of books for me! These are books about the “history” of my lifetime.

Insight: Just because I lived through something, that doesn’t mean I understand it in any depth. Yes, I may have memories, but they are fragmentary and I should be careful of using them as a basis for conclusions. I was a child in the fifties, a teenager and college student in the sixties, etc.

This insight was triggered by reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King in 1968. I’ll post a review shortly, with some comments on my (personal) memories of that terrible event.

Here are some reviews in this blog that cover history I “experienced” first hand:

  • “The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America” by James Peterson. Blog post dated June 3, 2013. Current commentators treat the sixties as some kind of joke! But serious things happened.
  • The John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, in which I saw the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that scared me half to death. Blog post dated January 1, 2014
  • “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer (posts dated November 15 and November 21, 2013). I’m trying to understand the wars we have been (and are) fighting in the Middle East.

Now that I’ve recognized this need, I will be watching for books that explain the world I lived in, and which (for better or worse) I leave to my children.

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.

“Where is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury” by Cathy Crimmens (2001) and “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (A Memoir of Going Home)” (2010) by Rhoda Janzen

These two books were written by women who suffered personal calamities and wrote about them before they were really “digested”. In each case, I wonder if they hurried the work into print due to financial pressure.

Where is the Mango Princess? Is about the saddest book I ever read. Alan Crimmens was terribly injured in a freak motorboat accident. The man who emerged from that devastating brain injury was very different from his former self, and no longer capable of carrying adult responsibilities. His wife Cathy Crimmens tells their story with insight and considerable humor, but to me it seemed that she was desperate to write something that would sell.

My perspective on this may be slanted. A member of my family suffered a severe brain injury in an auto accident. I’ve walked the same path as Cathy Crimmens – emergency response, intensive care, rehabilitation, and the awful fear that perhaps medical science has saved the body but not the soul or personality. Our outcome was better than that of the Crimmens family. I’m sorry for what they suffered, and there’s just no way I can laugh at any part of it.

I didn’t share the misfortunes of Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Leaving her Mennonite community to follow her literary and academic aspirations, she married a charming, brilliant man who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. After the marriage ended and she was injured in a serious auto accident, she went home, to stay with her aging Mennonite parents and heal.

My perspective on this book may be slanted by my age – I am closer to her parents’ age! I find this book often slides over the line from affectionate humor into rudeness, even malice. Snarky – I think that’s the word. Unkind.

The best aspect of this book is its account of life with a partner who refuses to consistently medicate for a treatable (and complicated) mental illness. As a culture and as individuals, we are now working hard to understand mental health, remove stigma and optimize treatment. A tall order, and honest, intelligent accounts like this one are worth a great deal.

Each of these books offers an authentic, highly intelligent female voice. I wish the authors well, and hope to learn, in the future, that each has found the good fortune she deserves.