April 11, 2014
The Wives Of Los Alamos: A Novel
The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel TaraShea Nesbit: Bloomsbury, 2014. 233 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-1620405031.
In 1943, a disparate group of scientists was approached about a project to “help the war effort.” They agreed, and the Manhattan Project was born. We’ve spent our lives studying these men, understanding their science, their motivations, and their lives after. But what about the wives and children who followed them into the desert? Who were these women before and after The Gadget was built.
The Wives of Los Alamos tells the story of these women in a very unusual way. Most novels are told in a single voice, or change voices to change characters. Ms. Nesbit aggregates the voices of the wives into a single narrator with multiple consciousnesses.
“We arrived in New Mexico and thought we had come to the end of the earth, or we thought we had come home.”
This collective voice continues throughout the novel, showing the range of emotions these women encountered. They were resigned, excited, frustrated, angry, perceptive and oblivious. They spent their time finding ways to get around Army regulations and bickering over household help and bathtubs. Children were born and raised and sent away to college or the war, without the ability to return once they left.
The novel fills the reader with unease, with angst, with empathy and with laughter at times following these women as they learn to cope with unbuilt houses, unmanned schools, and unannounced spot-searches of their cars. They dealt with affairs and loneliness and fear and isolation, with families that didn’t understand the silences, and with the loss of even their names. “We became something more all-American: Mrs. Fermi became Mrs. Farmer and Mrs. Mueller was now Mrs. Miller.”
They lived with secrecy, with gossip, with worry for their brothers and cousins and children serving in the war. And they lived with bells, constantly ringing.
“It was our first day, our second day, our hundredth day, and bells sounded. Bells sounded in the morning to tell our husbands it was time to go to the Tech Area, bells sounded in the evenings to tell our husbands it was time to get back to the Tech Area after dinner, bells sounded if there was a fire, bells sounded if we were out of water, bells sounded, bells sounded.”
And after, when it was all over and Los Alamos became something else, they dealt with the guilt and the doubt and the recriminations. This is the tale of the women who made the Manhattan Project possible through their strength and support.
Years later, many of these incredible women wrote about their experiences, and Nesbit drew upon these accounts to bring life and authenticity to her work. Her novel is quiet, unassuming and yet, powerful for the unusual view it gives us of the lives of The Wives of Los Alamos.
Image Credit: Bloomsbury USA