Tag Archives: World War II

“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.

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

“The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears

I’ve putting off writing about The Dream of Scipio because it is the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read in years. It was selected as “summer” reading by a book group I attend only intermittently. During the academic year, the group’s schedule often conflicts with mine. In summer, the group reads a long work and gathers for dinner as well as discussion. I looked forward to this event, but was called for a volunteer service project and missed it. Darn! One friend reported that the discussion was good but “didn’t get to the interesting stuff”. There’s so much “interesting stuff” in this book, how would you know where to begin? (Asking the starting question for a book group is a serious responsibility!)

The “dream” in the book title refers to a dream or vision attributed to the Roman general Scipio Africanus and recounted by both Cicero and Chaucer. The dream bears a warning about the perils of vanity and power. (I’m dipping into Wikipedia and eNotes.com for this.)

Iain Pear’s novel has a fixed geographical focus, namely the city and surroundings of Avignon, France. Three historical eras are included.

  • the later Roman empire
  • the fourteenth century “plague years”
  • World War II

Calling this book “historical fiction” is a serious oversimplification.

The novel begins with a suicide by burning. Not for the faint of heart.

I interpreted the book as a harsh critique of the impact of Christianity on the cultures that came before it.

The sets of characters in each era are so strongly parallel that reincarnation comes to mind. Is the “wise woman” portrayed in each era really the same woman, or in some sense an archetype, Sophia the goddess of wisdom?

I plan to reread this book when I can get my hands on a hard copy. The Kindle is not ideal for a book that requires the reader to skip back and forth. It’s not a good book to put down and then pick up two weeks later. I highly recommend reading The Dream of Scipio with a group, so you will have ample opportunity for discussion.

“The Woman Who Smashed Codes – A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies” by Jason Fagone

This book was recommended to me by someone who said she couldn’t put it down, that it made her cry. I was equally entranced.

The life history of Elizebeth (sic) Smith Friedman (1892 – 1980) was an example of truth being stranger (and WAY more interesting) than fiction.

This is one of the “lost” stories of recent American history.

We are now, finally, as decades pass and TOP SECRET ULTRA documents from World War II are declassified, learning what our relatives/ancestors were doing during World War II. My family is turning up some surprises. Has this happened to you? Do you need to ask your grandparents (quickly!) for the whole story?

The book Code Girls by Liza Mundywas an excellent example of this.                                                                                                                     I blogged about it on December 2, 2017.

What made Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s life more interesting than fiction? Elizebeth was so entirely self made! She was the youngest of nine children growing up on an Indiana farm, and was only the second of them to go to college. Her unsupportive father loaned her the money, and charged interest. She majored in literature and studied several languages, then worked briefly as a high school principal.

One crucial, strikingly odd (and sometimes threatening) character in Elizebeth’s life was George Fabyan, a rich eccentric who patronized and cultivated an eclectic coterie of scientists and other intellectuals, many of whom lived at his Riverbank Estate outside Chicago.

At Riverside Estate, Elizebeth met William F Friedman, also a Fabyan protégé. The two were married in 1917. Friedman had studied agriculture (at my alma mater, Michigan State University!) and later genetics, at Cornell.

Fabyan employed Smith as a literary researcher and code breaker and Friedman as a plant geneticist.

Elizebeth and William developed into groundbreaking cryptographers. The science of code breaking had barely been invented when they began to work together. Cryptanalysis is a science, but also a highly intuitive endeavor. Success depends on the ability to see patterns in letters, words or numbers that appear random. After World War I, during Prohibition, Elizebeth broke codes used by criminal bootleggers and rumrunners, and testified against notorious mobsters in court. This brought her a measure of  public attention.

World War II raised the stakes on cryptanalysis. Successful code breaking contributed greatly to the Allied victory. WHAT IF THE US AND GREAT BRITAIN HAD NOT BOTH BROKEN ENEMY CODES AND KEPT THEIR INTELLIGENCE CAPABILITIES SECRET?? This book caused me to wonder what my life would have been like if the Allies had lost WW II. Would I have grown up in an occupied country? How long would Facism have persisted? Was the Cold War inevitable? The nuclear arms race?

Ironically, during World War II Elizebeth and William worked in different military agencies and were prohibited from discussing their assignments with each other. Loneliness was added to the other terrible wartime stresses they faced. William suffered from “nerves” (probably depression) at a time when little professional/medical help was available. Elizebeth “covered” for him and went to extremes to protect, support and encourage him. They loved each other devotedly for 52 years, until William died in 1969.

After WW II, Elizebeth received much less attention than William. Only recently have historians paid serious attention to Elizebeth’s incredible genius and military contributions.

Read this book! I predict it will be one of your favorites.

“Chasing Heisenberg – The Race for the Atomic Bomb” by Michael Joseloff

Chasing Heisenberg: The Race for the Atom Bomb (Kindle Single)

This book appeals to two audiences:

  • World War II buffs
  • Readers interested in the history of science and technology

I studied chemistry, so I’m familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, published in 1927. When dealing with subatomic particles, you can’t know both the location and the wavelength. (I think that’s it.) I even studied quantum mechanics. Heavy going… Heisenberg’s research contributed to the “atomic age” in which we live.

Theoretical physics might have remained an obscure scientific obsession, but as World War II proceeded, it became a vital matter of Allied security to find out if Hitler might deploy an atomic weapon. Heisenberg, a loyal German, was at the head of the German atomic effort. Hence, the Alsos Mission, a military attempt to capture certain German scientists (before the Russians) and learn how far their research had progressed.

Equally interesting were descriptions of the Manhattan Project (America’s first nuclear reactor) and Los Alamos (where our nuclear weapons were developed.)

This narration reminds us that, when it was happening, the outcome of World War II seemed uncertain.

“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller – the book and the play

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I saw Catch 22 last night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. I read the book 50 years ago. This should explain any incoherence in my comments.

The setting is the European theatre of World War II. The characters are members of the Allied military stationed in Italy, and local residents they meet.

Joseph Heller, a WWII Air Force bombardier, published the book in 1962 and the theatrical adaptation in 1971. Catch 22 (either way) is black satire – funny but tragic. It deals with war as hell without actually showing the battlefield, while vividly showing the human toll.

The program note reads “This theatrical adaptation distills a non-linear 450-page book with over 60 characters…down to a mere 89 pages” with 35 characters. And it was performed with SIX actors! Character changes were signaled in many ways, not just through costume but through accents, posture, etc. All the skills of an accomplished actor. Casting ran across gender lines. (Is this becoming a norm?)

Catch 22 struck a chord with my generation as we wrestled with the Vietnam “conflict”, the first of our undeclared wars. World War II was fought by a military that relied on draftees, as was Vietnam. The difference is that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam, after which the United States shifted to an “all volunteer” military.

World War II is widely featured in fiction. I’ve read some post-Vietnam fiction, but only non-fiction from the more recent wars fought in the Middle East. Every war finds its way into literature.

Enough history for now! I was excited and impressed by the Curio Theatre Company. They perform in a renovated church in West Philadelphia, part of a localist movement that goes right down to the street level. (“Localism” is a word. I checked.) The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is a sponsor. The performance space is small and the audience sits on three sides of the stage. Lighting, sets and costumes are entirely professional. It’s an amazing accomplishment!

Catch 22 runs until May 19. You can see it! Tickets are available on line.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

 

This book is a treat. It’s romantic without being sentimental. As England recovers from World War II, a young woman accidentally begins corresponding with a resident of the island of Guernsey, a part of Britain that fell under Nazi control during the War. She travels to meet her pen pal and finds the island beautiful and the people charming.

If you have ever belonged to a book group, you will love this novel! The “literary society” of the title emerges accidentally, when residents are caught out after an occupation curfew. They don’t stop reading and meeting when the War ends.

The island of Guernsey suffered cruelly under wartime conditions. Residents and occupiers alike were on the verge of starvation when the war ended. Winston Churchill refused to send humanitarian aid because he was afraid it would fall into enemy hands. My misgivings about Churchill grow stronger.

Enjoy this book!