I was attracted to this book because when I first got married, my husband was in the Air Force and stationed at Holloman AFB in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I gave up my home, my friends and my car and moved to the middle of nowhere with him. I’m from Ohio, so I’m used to green, and water, and soft spring air. I’m used to mist and rain and vegetation so lush at certain times of year that it feels like a rain forest. I’m used to sweet smells like honeysuckle and rich dark earth. Then, I moved to the desert.
The wooden seat of my grandmother’s rocking chair cracked from the dryness. I couldn’t ride my bike because of the altitude. It made my head whirl and my stomach sick to exercise, so I gained about twenty pounds. My skin dried out, my lips cracked and the inside of my nose would peel off and bleed every time I blew it. The anchor stores in the mall were K-Mart and some janky little place called Beall’s that I’d never heard of and did not like. We had one car and I was without it most of the time when my husband went to “work” on the base, and I put “work” in quotes, because most of what they did was play cards and stupid tricks on each other. Nine out of ten work days resulted in my husband coming straight home, or being home in about two or three hours because there was nothing to do and they sent everyone home. That was a good thing because my loneliness knew no bounds. Friends of ours got an illicit kitten, illicit, because our complex did not allow pets. I wanted one because I was lonesome, so we got a tiny black kitten I named Sara. She slept on my chest and chased away nightmares.
On the plus side, we had a lot of fun. It was like being in college. There were parties every weekend, and we went to most of them. Our friend Dan had us over for dinner one night and cooked steaks on the grill. I like mine well done, but these were charcoal. I yummed, and put ketchup on it and ate the parts with actual meat left in them. I drank some Seagram’s Seven in coke and like to died. To this day, I cannot stand to see even the label on a bottle in the store. Finally the day came when most all of our friends left and my husband got out of the service and we stayed. He went to work for a civilian contractor on the base, doing the same job and making three times as much money. When our friends left, it no longer felt like college, he actually had to work, and I got lonelier. Eventually, we too left and moved on to bigger and better things, but that part of my life, while miserable in so many respects was also a happy time for us. Nobody built a bomb, or did much that was top secret, but the parallels between that experience and the experiences described in /The Wives of Los Alamos/ were definitely there.
The book is written in first person, but uses “we” and “our” for example instead of “I” and “me.” For the first couple of pages, it was a little confusing, but it soon became comfortable. It was used to great effect to illustrate the communal, “we’re all in the same boat, and one is much like the other” circumstances these women found themselves in. The husbands were all physicists, recruited to work on the atomic bomb and as part of agreeing to do so, they demanded that they be allowed to bring their families. The families had no idea where they were going until they got there, and once they knew, they were not allowed to tell anyone at home. Their letters were read by censors, care package treats were stolen by censors, cars were searched, requests to leave denied and husbands were largely absent and stressed when they WERE around.
We learn about the difficulties of being without the familiar, with drying out like the desert sand, having very little water, relationships, kids, pregnancies, loss, fear, worries about the war and the brothers and friends who were fighting it, getting comfortable and then leaving. We also learn about the joys of friendship, parties, finding ways to pass the time. There are brief mentions of Oppenheimer and some of the other famous names associated with the project, but nothing too specific. This is definitely the women’s story, and really, you could call it the woman’s story, because as unique as each individual was, once they arrived at Los Alamos, they were all more or less the same.
I highly recommend this book, and not just because it reminds me of my own life. It is historical fiction from the point of view of the overlooked. It didn’t matter what these women did before they ended up in Los Alamos, or what they did after they left; while they were there, they were the wives of the men who ended a war and changed the world, for better or worse is a matter of opinion.
Have a great day and spend part of it with a great book 🙂