Love, loss and nuclear reactors

Two new books explore the perspectives of women during the West’s nuclear boom.

 

Dozens of nonfiction books have delved into the history of nuclear facilities in the West and the Manhattan Project, detailing the Department of War’s secret acquisition of land in Los Alamos, the rapid emigration of eminent scientists, and their feverish work to build the atomic bomb. But when it comes to the human drama behind the science, several writers have turned to fiction, and women’s perspectives, to tell the story. TaraShea Nesbit’s poised 2014 novel The Wives of Los Alamos delivers the details of life in the top-secret town through the incantatory collective first-person voice of the scientists’ wives. In Nora Gallagher’s elegant 2007 novel Changing Light, set in 1945 Los Alamos, a female painter befriends a scientist injured in a radiation accident who can’t disclose any details of his work.

A man checks Highway 20 in Idaho for contamination the morning after a nuclear reactor accident that killed three men in 1961.
Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory

Now, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love draws on her personal history to spin a compelling tale of an intelligent woman whose dreams are deferred in service to her husband’s nuclear work. Church’s father was a research chemist recruited to the Manhattan Project. Her mother, a biologist, followed him to Los Alamos, where Church grew up.

Church tells the story of Meridian Wallace, an ambitious young woman who aims to earn her Ph.D. in ornithology, but is derailed by love and its consequences. Meridian earns a scholarship to the University of Chicago in 1941, and soon attracts Alden Whetstone, a physics professor whom she describes as “a wholly intellectual creature barely cognizant of the physical world and its requirements. I felt myself longing to soar along with him in the realm of pure ideas, of complete and total academic isolation.” They marry before he relocates to Los Alamos for the war effort; she eventually follows, and her plans to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell crumble.

Church tracks Meridian for decades, as Alden turns into a controlling, antisocial fussbudget and she languishes, neglected and unfulfilled, studying the local crow population in a desultory way. Meridian struggles toward self-actualization, gradually at first and then in a headlong rush when in 1970 she meets a handsome Vietnam vet, fresh from the commune with long hair and love beads. The Atomic Weight of Love is a mid-life coming-of-age tale, set in an era when women had to wait a long time before they could put themselves first, if ever.

The Longest Night, the propulsive, nuanced debut by Andria Williams, similarly feels like the book this author was born to write. Williams’ husband is an active-duty Naval officer, currently stationed in Colorado, and she conveys the interpersonal tensions of life in the military, both on the base and in town, with apt detail. The story begins in 1959, when Paul and Nat Collier move with their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, where Paul has been stationed to work on a clunky nuclear reactor. Even if readers know that this was the site in 1961 of America’s only fatal nuclear reactor meltdown, the suspense of The Longest Night only intensifies as it creeps toward that event.

Paul observes shoddy maintenance and incompetent leadership at the reactor but keeps Nat in the dark so as not to worry her: white lies that soon become a symptom of their fraying marriage. Stress builds as Paul clashes with his lecherous and drunken superior officer.

Meanwhile, Nat feels marooned without a car and judged by gossipy military wives in a town where “someone’s garbage can lid laying to the side and not securely clamped on the can: That was an event.” When Paul is deployed to Antarctica as a consequence of an impetuous mistake, Nat welcomes the friendship of a courteous local car repairman.

Williams has a knack for crafting taut scenes that increase tension, reveal character and entertain: the reckless dive that displays a young mother’s spirit and the strains in her marriage, the disastrous dinner party hosted by “one of those women … whose calculating mind was always at work on others of her sex, detecting their weaknesses like a mine-sniffing German shepherd,” and the small-town diner where there’s a “dinginess to the place, grime in every crevice, a sense of not quite caring.”

Williams writes with rich psychological insight into all her characters, who evolve and surprise, even the beastliest or youngest. Nat’s children, like Shakespeare’s fools, regularly pipe up with information that reveals the truth adults are trained to conceal.

These two novels focus on the kind of capable women drawn to the West by nuclear installations, only to find their potential squelched due to the mid-20th century’s primary focus on the work of men. As these women simmer and yearn and the ’60s and ’70s dawn, we see their personal lives become as volatile as reactors.

You could fill a shelf with books set in the nuclear West. These two debut novels prove that the formidable power of nuclear facilities, the flawed humans who run them, and questions about the morality of these experiments continue to make for gripping drama.

The Longest Night
Andria Williams
383 pages, hardcover: $27.00
Random House, 2016.

The Atomic Weight of Love
Elizabeth J. Church
368 pages, softcover: $15.95.
Algonquin Books, 2017.