The Wives Of Los Alamos
Copy courtesy of the publisher
It is WWII and America has just joined the fighting after the bombing of Peal Harbor. However, they don’t want to be in a drawn out war, fighting for years with no result other than loss of life. They want to do something that will stop the war, end it for good. They want to create something that will change the way that wars are fought.
And so men from all over the country are recruited to work on a secret project. They are physicists, scientists, men who can research and put it into practice. They are taken to a base in Los Alamos New Mexico to a secluded lab that very few people know the precise location of. And many of them bring their wives, their families.
The wives are all very different. They are young, they are older. They have university degrees, they don’t. They have children, they are hoping to in the future. They have brothers fighting overseas in the war, or other loved ones. They go to Los Alamos to live in barely finished houses, unable to tell their families their precise location. They are encased by barbed wire, they rarely get to leave the compound. They live their lives among the other wives, the children and the dust, wondering precisely what it is their husbands are up to, over in the lab.
But the difficulty wasn’t adapting to life in the dusty, remote surroundings of the camp. The real difficulty was to come after, when they realised exactly what their husbands had created, how it had changed the war and what havoc it had wreaked on a far away place.
When I first received this book in the mail, I couldn’t tell from the title what it was about (my husband, a history nerd, did). It’s about the wives of the men working on the Manhattan Project, the Allied project to develop nuclear weapons at a secret laboratory facility in New Mexico. The government recruited physicists and scientists from universities and labs across the country and attempt to make a weapon that could end the war. But this book isn’t really about the bomb itself and what the men were doing in the lab because the women didn’t actually know. It’s about what it was like for them uprooting themselves and in many cases, their families, and moving across the country to a remote and difficult area.
Firstly, this book is written in first person plural, which means it’s mostly “We did this” and “Our husbands” or “Our children”. I understand (or at least I think I do) the thought processes behind this, to bond the women together, to make them a collective because it was a shared experience, an experience that was unique to them. However, this is the first time I’ve ever read a book that has been written in this fashion and it took a lot of getting used to – to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I did ever get used to it. So many of the sentences contradict each other because they describe completely different people, ie “We were young, we were old” or “We had children, we did not have children” and a lot of the book repeats this format, which I assumed was just for the introduction.
Because of this format, it does make it very difficult to connect with the women in the story because they are basically nameless and faceless. It’s about a collective experience and so you don’t get much of an idea of any one woman’s particular journey and experience, it’s all about the plural. In some ways, this is really interesting, that they saw themselves this way (or that the book portrays them as seeing themselves this way). I can see how that might happen because they are very alone there. They can’t talk to their families (their mail is censored) or their friends, they only have each other to speculate with and even then they need to do it discreetly. Los Alamos becomes like a little society with schools, a shop, dinner parties and the usual rumours about extramarital affairs, etc. I think it would’ve been interesting for the reader to be able to go deeper into this isolated community and really see what it was like living with people that you really have no escape from in conditions that are barely adequate, there for reasons they don’t really understand.
Whilst I found this book an interesting read, I think that the way it was written just made it too difficult to really sink into the story. It glossed over so many things and there were no real characters that stood out to connect with. This type of narrative is very difficult to pull off I think and requires a certain type of story for it to really work. I’m not sure this one was the right one, given how deep it could’ve gone and what it was actually about. These women’s husbands were creating the first atomic bomb, something that changed warfare forever and caused such utter devastation that it’s unimaginable. There were only some vague reactions, nothing really befitting the seriousness of the event. It was somewhat disappointing because this is such a fascinating idea and I just think the execution really let it down.
Book #51 of 2014