Friday, December 26, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

"We were no longer in charge of ourselves or even our own names." TaraShea Nesbit's debut novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, was a surprise. I never really thought about the families of the scientists who went to Los Alamos, the secrecy, the isolation, the loneliness. Nesbit's unusual writing style emphasizes the anonymity forced on these wives. It's a powerful novel, precisely because of that style with its emphasis on a collective group.

Nesbit chose to write about "we". She did emphasize that women had different feelings and ideas, but, overall, they were caught up in one giant government project. In 1943, scientists were approached, and those who accepted told their wives they were going "out west", without telling them where they were moving. These women, wives of scientists and academics, sometimes academics and scientists themselves, were told to pack up. They couldn't tell their parents where they were going. Some of the women figured it out by going to libraries, and finding names of other scientists in the books about New Mexico. But, none of the women were prepared for the dust, the dirt, the unfinished houses, the lack of bathtubs, the military life in an isolated fenced in community.

When they arrived in Los Alamos, they were often given new names. Mrs. Mueller was suddenly Mrs. Miller. Their letters were censored. They no longer knew what their husbands were doing in their lab. These intelligent women were faced with only each other for company, a school that was not yet finished, houses that weren't yet built. They competed for larger houses, only provided when a baby was added to the family. Children grew up in Los Alamos with no contact with their grandparents, no pictures allowed of their growth. And, the women were forced to build a community with other women who were equally in the dark as to what their husbands were doing.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a powerful book because of the secrecy demanded in this community. Nesbit's style enables the reader to sink into this life where strong women were forced to live drab, anonymous lives, not knowing how other women in the world were dressing, how life was changing. From 1943 to 1945, until the atomic bomb was dropped, these women were as imprisoned in their own lives as the families who were sent to internment camps in the U.S., a comparison that was mentioned once in the book. The story is all the more dramatic because of the quiet day-to-day routine of the lives in Los Alamos, and the names and words that are never even mentioned, or not uttered until the end of the book. Nesbit never says "Manhattan Project". Most of the scientists remain unnamed until the bomb is dropped. And, the women themselves only have first names.

The Wives of Los Alamos is one of the most quietly dramatic novels I've read. Nesbit's debut is a glimpse into unknown lives, a revealing story of women forced to live in secrecy.

TaraShea Nesbit's website is

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit. Bloomsbury. 2014. ISBN 9781620405031 (hardcover), 233p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Reine said...

The housing in these weapons development places is horrible. Small isolated imitation towns. Unbelievable strong winds blowing sand that gets into everything and can drive you nuts. At China Lake they're called the termination winds, because so many people quit and leave during that time of the year when the winds blow hardest. Some people pretend they love it there. Some actually do. I shouldn't have been surprised when two of our grown children elected to stay there. They grew up there. If that facility shuts down there won't be anymore town, because the support businesses will leave with it. I'd like to read the even starker story of the Wives of Los Alamos.

Lesa said...

Reine, I didn't know you had lived in one of those places. And, that was what was said in the book - that some of the grown children did decide to return. I imagine you have some horror stories that will allow you to relate to this book.

Reine said...

Lesa, I'm sure it wasn't anywhere near as difficult as where these women lived. I was a young bride when I moved to China Lake and had my husband's family living there as well. It was easy to make friends there, and it all looked pretty normal. There were schools and shopping and even a community college located in tin buildings and high school classrooms. Then you would learn odd things slowly. The Quonset hut where the Girl Scouts met had been living quarters at Manzinar. Or things that employees had been subjected to. My mother-in-law was a physicist. She talked of the day when all were encouraged to go out and watch the atom bomb test blast that was about to go off in Nevada. Everybody did, she said. No one wore eye protection. They just went outside and watched. During the 60s and 70s many of these scientists were against the war and had a difficult time reconciling what they did with what they saw. Some could not. I saw many friends leave for new careers, and I was glad when we left. It was a creepy place. While I was in community college in one of those tin sheds at the back end of the high school campus, Manson and followers were discovered nearby. They used to shop in the town that had grown up around the base. I felt like I was living in a Stephen King novel, and indeed he had set part of The Stand there. I know that these experiences had much to do with my becoming a Quaker.

Reine said...

By the way this is where Brett Battles grew up. We were neighbors.

Lesa said...

Fascinating, Reine, in a sort of creepy way.

Reine said...

If you think that's creepy I have a relative who just moved away from there because agriculture is moving in and growing food instead of... I don't know. More sand and rocks. Okay I get natural nature but I'd rather have an orchard than a giant housing tract which is the other possibility. Maybe I'm the odd one.

Lesa said...

I don't think you're so odd, Reine. It's just unusual what people get used to.

Reine said...

I think I can agree with that, Lesa!