« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Critical mass


Radiation workers in Ottawa, Ill., "downwinders" in Utah, unsuspecting veterans of the Gulf War - these are among the populations profiled in Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader. In the words of editor John Bradley, the anthology offers a glimpse into stories that "have been largely ignored, dismissed or suppressed."

Certain sections will be familiar to readers who have followed nuclear history over the years: an excerpt from Paradise of Bombs by Scott Russell Sanders that offers a chilling account of growing up in the shadow of the Ohio Arsenal; "The Clan of the One-Breasted Women" in which Terry Tempest Williams remembers watching, in that hour before dawn, a golden-stemmed cloud vibrating in the sky. The ash rained down on her family's car. And later, her mother - one of Utah's "downwinders" - died, causing Williams to question the Mormon faith in which she'd been raised. "Blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives," she writes.

Blind obedience is also at the heart of Mary Laufer's essay, an account of what it's like to be married to a man who worked on a Navy submarine that had first-strike capability. "I told myself that he didn't work directly with the weapons, so if they were launched in a war, he was blameless," Laufer writes. But that logic didn't hold indefinitely, and Laufer began to become troubled by her secondhand immersion in a nuclear lifestyle. "What bothered me most," she writes with candor of her husband, "was that it didn't seem to bother him."

Taken together, these stories bring to horrific light this nation's invisible nuclear history * a history that is, sadly, all over the map.

Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader, edited by John Bradley, University of Arizona Press, 2000. Paperback: $22.95. 330 pages.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Marilyn Abildskov