Coincidentally, like last month’s TBR Challenge book, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages is set during World War Two and revolves around a friendship forged between two girls. However, these girls are ten years old, and the story is set almost entirely at Los Alamos in New Mexico, where a cadre of scientists created the first nuclear bomb.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, and its sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, have been patiently waiting on the TBR shelf for quite some time. As Klages now has a third novel out, I decided it was time to move forward.
It’s 1943, and eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is en route to New Mexico to live with her mathematician father. Soon she arrives at a town that, officially, doesn’t exist. It is called Los Alamos, and it is abuzz with activity, as scientists and mathematicians from all over America and Europe work on the biggest secret of all–“the gadget.” None of them–not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey–know how much “the gadget” is about to change their lives. This book won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, the New Mexico Book Award, and the Lopez Award for Children’s Literature.
Though some historical figures do appear briefly, Richard Feynmann and Dorothy McKibbin among them, the two point-of-view characters are children. They and their families are fictional. Dewey Kerrigan’s father is a mathematician, a former Harvard professor. Suze Gordon’s parents are both scientists, with her mother Terry, a chemist, having a larger part to play in the story. Given the ages of the two protagonists, I would call this a Middle Grade book, but as an adult, I found it engrossing, reading most of it in one day.
I loved this book’s meticulous period detail. I was not alive in 1943-1945, but for the duration of the story, I felt that I was there (and I was reminded of my own pre-internet childhood). I could almost taste the dust and feel the New Mexico heat. The adults all seem to smoke, all the time, everywhere. The kids walk to the PX to buy a cold coke or a comic book; they build treehouses and explore the junk tossed into the Los Alamos dump. For security reasons, nobody has a phone (and of course there were no cell phones), which adds to the feeling of being disconnected from today’s world, as the inhabitants of Los Alamos were mostly disconnected from their own world.
Dewey is a budding engineer who’s suffered too much loss in her life. Suze is gradually discovering her artistic talents and how to be a friend. The book, I feel, somewhat rides on their relationship, which begins antagonistically, at least on Suze’s part. It’s immensely satisfying when they begin to open up to each other. To these children, that is the plot. I loved that as an adult reader, I could feel the world around them holding its breath for the coming explosion that changed the world.
Though Dewey and Suze know their parents’ work is secret, and related to winning the war, they have no idea of the scope of it; first, they’re children, and no one tells them anything; second, they can’t see the future we live in, and have no idea what is being wrought. It’s impossible for them to understand the scope of what has happened; I wonder if we truly understand the scope, even today.