In her impressive debut, The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit delves into the minds of the women married to the creators of the atom bomb. Nesbit spent years researching oral histories, memoirs, and archival documents to craft this unsentimental yet deeply moving story.
Her choice to write in the collective (we) voice of the wives works surprisingly well. In less capable hands, this treatment could easily grow irritating, even gimmicky, especially if the novel were a doorstopper in weight. Wisely, Nesbit keeps the story taut with spare but powerful prose that brings these women and their unique circumstances to vivid life.
The book opens in 1943 when across the United States, in cities and college towns, scientists' wives many in their twenties and some from abroad learn they'll be moving to the Southwest, where their husbands will work on a war project (See 'Beyond the Book'). The wives receive little or no specifics about the actual location, or the work to be done. Many of them with children in tow, or pregnant, arrive in New Mexico, to a military base surrounded by a barbed wire fence, with a sign that reads U.S. Government property. Danger. Keep out.
Ignorant about what their husbands are doing, the wives move into provided apartments or duplexes, believing they're "becoming part of something larger than our families, larger than ourselves." Though the mountains smell to these women "like lavender and lemon verbena," they also soon realize they've been transplanted to a landscape with sweltering temperatures, a water shortage, coyotes, snakes, and tarantulas. Their husbands work 12-hour days and sometimes don't come home even to sleep but instead drag Army cots with them to the lab, or what's called the "infamous Tech Area." Despite the long hours, the wives "are not allowed to ask questions."
As the characters develop, the wives' feelings of loneliness and isolation are often rivaled by their insecurities and flaws. The women gossip, they get jealous, they say unkind things behind one another's backs, they talk about whose husband or wife is cheating and playing "musical beds." Some complain about not having enough maids: Tewa and Spanish women from nearby pueblos and homesteads, or girls from a Catholic Indian school in Santa Fe. Though the wives do not always inspire sympathy, Nesbit's honest, unflinching portrayal reveals their humanness. The effect is compelling and keeps the pages turning. (Those concerned about too much domestic melodrama needn't worry. The book isn't "Desperate Housewives" on the mesa but a serious, sensitively rendered work).
Historical events and famous names are interspersed throughout, which often makes the book read like creative nonfiction. When one of the wives says, "Kitty Oppenheimer always seems to have plenty of gas in her tank," many readers will already know that Kitty was the wife of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos lab during the atom bomb's development.
As history unfolds and the truth behind their husbands' work is revealed, some of the wives cannot deny a profound ambiguity. When news reports confirm the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which lead to Japan's surrender, the wives wonder, "But how did this new bomb work? We cheered We won! but some of us thought privately quite the opposite: this was a new scale of human cruelty."
The novel will likely be more gratifying and disturbing for readers already familiar with Los Alamos's history and the creation of the atom bomb. (The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is an excellent source.) An informed read will add insight, resulting in a riveting tension throughout the story. The Wives of Los Alamos is a provocative work that boldly re-imagines one of the most monumental periods in our history from an original and long neglected women's point of view.
This review was originally published in March 2014, and has been updated for the January 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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