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for people who care about the West

The bomb builders’ wives

 

The Wives of Los Alamos
TaraShea Nesbit
233 pages, hardcover:
$25.
Bloomsbury, 2014.

In her deft debut novel, Colorado writer TaraShea Nesbit imagines the lives of the wives of the men who were stationed in New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Nesbit writes in the collective voice of the women, whose physicist husbands suddenly announce, "We are going to the desert," without offering too many details. The women cannot even tell their relatives exactly where they are headed. "Our mothers understood," Nesbit writes. "Our mothers had kept great secrets."

The collective narration gives the prose an incantatory rhythm that suits the story, once the reader becomes accustomed to the frequent contradictions within a sentence: "We arrived in New Mexico and thought we had come to the end of the earth, or we thought we had come home." Out of the threads of each woman's experiences a tapestry is woven, revealing a peculiar, complex and yet temporary society.

The families are assigned houses inside a fenced complex patrolled by Dobermans and mounted guards. "We handed over our cameras. We denied we kept a diary." The women know their scientist husbands are engaged in a secret war project, but most have no idea what is really going on.

Since the wives can't share their lives with people outside the compound, they confide in each other and form a lively society, throwing cocktail parties, swapping clothes and minding each other's children. "The military officially ran the town in one way," Nesbit writes, "and our husbands in practice ran the town in some ways, and we ran the town clandestinely in others."

The suspense for the reader comes from wondering how much the women know about their husbands' work, and what they think about it. The answer varies for each of them, but none of them knows the complete truth until they see the devastation the atom bomb inflicts on Japan. The aftermath leaves them all deeply affected, even as their trajectories splinter from collective to individual again. Some decide the U.S. was justified in using the bombs; others, horrified by the unprecedented destruction, want to dedicate their lives to limiting nuclear weapons. In the end, all of them are bound by the part they played in the atom bomb's creation.