9781620405031“The Wives of Los Alamos- A Novel” by TaraShea Nesbit

Bloomsbury, $26.50, 230 pp.

TaraShea Nesbit reads from her book “The Wives of Los Alamos” at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 9 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque and at 6 p.m.  Monday, March 10 at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo St., Santa Fe.

By David Steinberg

TaraShea Nesbit, author of “The Wives of Los Alamos,” first took an interest in the history of the atomic bomb when a friend told her about a high school in eastern Washington whose nickname/mascot was the (Atomic) Bombers.

“I wanted to know more about that town for a nonfiction writing project. I was not in school at the time,  just writing for fun and working full-time. And what I learned was that the town, Richland, was once the site called Hanford, a secret Manhattan Project city for plutonium production,” Nesbit said in an email. “World War II uranium-enrichment happened at Hanford, and the legacy of their part in the atomic bomb-making is a huge part of Richland’s history, hence the mascot.”

Nesbit said she wanted to dig further into the history of the Hanford scientists. “If Hanford was (helping to build the bomb), what were the stories of the men and women who developed the science to make that bomb-building possible?” she asked herself.

That led her to investigate female atomic scientists and then she moved on to the wives of male scientists at the project’s Los Alamos site.

She read the oral histories of some of the wives of atomic scientists at Los Alamos, a major lab of the Manhattan Project during World War II.  She listened to oral histories from a podcast series put out by the Los Alamos Historical Society and memoirs by men and women who lived at Los Alamos. Nesbit became interested, as she put it in the email,  “in finding the emotional experiences of these women who helped make the bombs through their support of their husbands. Though I read about the lead scientists, even more interesting to me was to think of what life was like for their educated, newly married wives who followed their husbands to an unknown location in New Mexico. After doing archival research, I could not stop thinking about their voices and their fears and their celebrations and their longings and the aftermath of that experience.”

In her phone interview with me, Nesbit noted, “I thought of these wives. Their voices haven’t been heard, and they have so many stories to tell.”

That formed the basis of the motivation for her to write the recently published book “The Wives of Los Alamos.”

But Nesbit’s debut book is a novel based on her research, and the book takes an unusual literary approach. It creatively presents the wives’ stories collectively with a scattered snippets of dialogue.

As Nesbit put it in the interview, “I thought it was a way to honor the individual experience but not creating one character that I could get wrong and who could be easily identifiable.”

The narrative is written largely in the first person plural, with most sentences opening with “We…” or “Our…” The approach can be initially disconcerting but if the reader stays with it, it is rewarding.

Here’s an example of that collective voice from page three: “We had degrees from Mount Holyoke, as our grandmothers did, or from a junior college, as our fathers insisted. We had doctorates from Yale; we had coursework from MIT and Cornell; we were certain we could discover for ourselves just where we would be moving. What did we know about the Southwest?”

Their destination, they eventually learned, was Los Alamos. For several years after their arrival, the wives were kept in the dark about their husbands’ top-secret work. The subject of their work was vaguely called “The Gadget.”

The book has the quality of a sociological study as it looks into the daily lives of the wives. However, the style in which Nesbit tells the story has a personal, next-door-neighbor tone. She gives first names to some of the wives, names like Ruth, Alice, Katherine, Louise and Starla.(cq)

The novel addresses the relationships the wives have with their husbands, their children, their mothers and with each other. There’s also the wives’ relationships with the Hispanic and Native American girls and women who were their nannies and their maids. (“They were our Florencitas and Rosalies – who gave us black pottery for Christmas, who brought us thin tortillas made from blue corn and pottery candlesticks in the shape of high Pueblo boots. …”)

The narrative relates the travails of the Spartan life in their hilltop homes inside a fenced-in compound, about what the families ate for dinner (“We budgeted ration coupons…”), about the sometimes brown or scarce supply of running water, about the weather and the high-desert landscape (“the sandy soil came through cracks in the windows and door frames…” ), about their picnics and hikes.

That collective approach, Nesbit said, was inspired by Juliana Spahr’s book “The Transformation,” which takes the point of view of three people, and the view was presented in the third person plural – they.  “It was a way to explore the tensions among them, this group of outsiders who had moved to Hawaii,” Nesbit said.

When she was reading the oral histories of the Los Alamos wives, Nesbit said, “it dawned on me that a primary identity was the group identity. And it seemed like for me a way to explore these two identities that we have – as being part of communities  and as being individuals.”

Tension between those two identities flares later in Nesbit’s novel when the secret work of the Los Alamos scientists is revealed and atom bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the aftermath of the bombings, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory – Robert Oppenheimer is only referred to as the “Director” in the book – speaks at a town meeting. The wives come away with mixed feelings about their husbands’ work: “We felt ashamed, we felt proud, we felt confused.”

Nesbit said she came to fiction from nonfiction and came to nonfiction from poetry.  She has published poetry and a lyric essay in a literary journal. A Boulder, Colo., resident, Nesbit is currently teaching at the University of Denver, where she is pursuing a doctorate in literature and creative writing.

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