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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
  • ASSISTANT VICE PRESIDENT FOR DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
  • GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT MANAGER
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
  • COLORADO DIRECTOR
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
  • DIGITAL MEDIA SPECIALIST, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY: WYOMING, MONTANA AND UTAH
    Digital Media Specialist - WY, MT, UT OFFICE LOCATION Remote and hybrid options available. Preferred locations are MT, WY or UT, but applicants from anywhere...
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT) HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News seeks an energetic, articulate and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • EXPERT COMPUTER & TECH HELP, PROVIDED REMOTELY
    From California, I provide expert tech help remotely to rural and urban clients. I charge only when I succeed. Available 7 days. Call for a...
  • ACCOUNTING AND OPERATIONS GENERALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Accounting and Operations Generalist provides accounting and operations related services, including lease administration and compliance support, to the Arizona...
  • LANDSCAPE ECOLOGIST
    Landscape Ecologist, Arizona What We Can Achieve Together: The Landscape Ecologist provides technical and scientific support and leadership for conservation initiatives and strategies in landscape...
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE STEWARD
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Steward lives on site in housing provided by The Nature Conservancy and performs and coordinates construction...
  • ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF HISTORY - INDIGENOUS HISTORIES OF THE NORTH AMERICAN WEST
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
  • DAVE AND ME
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.