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The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

by TaraShea Nesbit

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Overview

Finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, an Indies Choice Debut Pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and winner of two New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.

The “haunting . . . impressive” (NYTBR) National Bestseller—imagining the untold human history of the making of the atomic bomb.

They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret—including what their husbands were doing at the lab. Though they were strangers, they joined together—adapting to a landscape as fierce as it was absorbing, full of the banalities of everyday life and the drama of scientific discovery.

While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn’t say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn’t have. But the end of the war would bring even bigger challenges, as the scientists and their families struggled with the burden of their contribution to the most destructive force in the history of mankind.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a testament to a remarkable group of real-life women and an exploration of a crucial, largely unconsidered aspect of one of the most monumental research projects in modern history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620405031
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

TaraShea Nesbit’s writing has been featured in the Iowa Review, Quarterly West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other literary journals. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at the University of Denver and the University of Washington in Tacoma and is the nonfiction editor of Better: Culture & Lit. A graduate of the M.F.A. program at Washington University in St. Louis, TaraShea is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Denver. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

THE WIVES of LOS ALAMOS

A NOVEL


By TARASHEA NESBIT

BLOOMSBURY

Copyright © 2014 TaraShea Nesbit
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-503-1


CHAPTER 1

WEST


Over the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Arctic, the Atlantic; in sewers, in trenches, on the ocean, in the sky: there was a war going on. Sometimes it seemed far away, barely happening, but then a mother or a wife placed a gold star in her living room window—her brother, her husband, her son, our neighbor—and the war became personal.

It was March, gas was rationed; therefore the streets were quiet. We heard a car pull up in the driveway. We wiped our hands on our apron and placed the apron on the dishes. The doorbell rang and a young man, just slightly older than our husbands, about thirty-five, stood on our porch in a porkpie hat and asked whether the professor was home. His eyes were the color of stillness—something between a pale body of water and the fog that emerges above it. Although dinner was almost ready our house was chilly—we could not turn on the gas heater—and we invited him in but felt embarrassed by the cold. Our husbands came downstairs and they shook hands. This man was tall, but his shoulders stooped as if he had spent his life trying to appear smaller than he was in order to make others comfortable.

He asked our husbands about their research at the university, we asked him to stay for dinner; he declined but said to our husbands, I've got a proposal, and together they walked down the hallway to our husband's office, and the door closed behind them.

When they came out an hour later our husbands were flushed and smiling. They shook the man's hand, smiled, and walked him out.

Our husbands joined us in the kitchen and said, We are going to the desert, and we had no choice except to say Oh my! as if this sounded like great fun. Where? we asked, and no one answered. If we were the ones to see the man to the door—the future Director of our future unknown location—on the front porch he said to us, I think you will like life up there. We asked, Where is "up there" exactly? He hesitated and said, My two loves are physics and the desert. My wife is my mistress, and winked at us. We watched him walk down the sidewalk two blocks and turn the corner.

Or it did not happen like that at all. One day, after we read books to our children, after we folded their blankets back, kissed them, tried to hurry along their sleep, we came downstairs to find our husbands smoking a pipe in their wingback chair, the orange one, an ugly thing we did not like, and we heard them ask us, How'd you like to live in the Southwest? and we plopped down on the couch, and we bounced the seat cushions, just as our children did, which annoyed us, although, when we did it, we found it exceedingly enjoyable. We were European women born in Southampton and Hamburg, Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio, or Southern women from Mississippi or Texas, and no matter who we were we wanted nothing to do with starting all over again, and so we paused, we exhaled, and we asked, What part of the Southwest?

Our husbands muttered, I don't know. And we thought that was strange.

Or one winter day our husbands came home with burns on their right arms and told us their bosses said they needed to go west to recuperate. Out west there would be work, they said, though they could not give any more specifics about where out west.

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? A new dam, Hoover, that could, perhaps, power a grand experiment in the desert. To this and other conjectures we asked our husbands to nod Yes or No. You won't be telling, we said. But no matter how seductively or how kindly we asked Where? and placed a hand on their chest, our husbands would not say, even if they did know, which we suspected they did.

A few of us of us had experienced secrecy already. Our husbands were professors at Columbia or the University of Chicago and just that past month the Physics Lab was renamed the Metallurgical Lab, though no one in the lab, especially our husbands, were metallurgists, or did any kind of metal extracting. The college hired armed guards to be posted inside the doors of the Metallurgical Lab, and in the last weeks even the wives were no longer permitted to enter.

Our husbands said, I'll go on ahead, or, We'll all go together, or, I can't say when I will arrive but you should get on the train and set up house now. We suggested our husbands take a job in Canada instead. They declined the suggestion. And if they told us we were going to the Southwest, perhaps saying, We are going away and that's the end of the discussion, we went to the university library and found the only three travel books about the Southwest. And the card in the back pocket of the New Mexico book had the names of our husbands' colleagues who disappeared weeks before to some strange wilderness, people had said. We knew then that New Mexico was probably where we were going, too. We felt we had partially solved the mystery.

If our husbands told us, We are going away and that's the end of the discussion, we knew not to ask another thing, and we kept our partially solved mysteries to ourselves.

Those of us with husbands who were going to have manager in their titles got to know, immediately, the general location of our future home. Our husbands informed us we were going to Site Y, outside Santa Fe. We wrote a list of things we wanted to know about our new town for our husbands to ask them about—we did not know who they and them were. We typed: How are the schools? Is there a hospital? Is there adequate help? What size are the windows? How is the weather?

Replies came back from our husbands over dinner as they passed the Brussels sprouts. They told us, Rest assured, your children will receive the finest education. And, The hospital will take care of all your needs. And, You will be provided with excellent cleaning and childcare help. The roads can get muddy—bring your rubbers! We raised our eyebrows. It sounded funny, official, and suspect, but we said, That sounds nice. We were not told that the school, the homes, and the hospital had not yet been built.

A week before we left, a gentleman came to the door, showed us a badge, and said, Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Over iced tea and stale sugar cookies we were quizzed about our presence at a Marxist Pedagogy meeting in 1940, or we were asked why we were on the list of members of the League of Women Shoppers, and didn't we know that that organization was a Communist front? We were only a year out of Russia and was it true we had been captains in the Russian Army? Was it true we taught English classes for the Communist Party worker's school in Youngstown, Ohio?

It was likely our husbands were questioned as well, though many were less interested in discussing the interrogation. We told the short man with the inscrutable expressions that we wanted nothing to do with the Communist Party, that we were never involved, or that we weren't involved anymore. We said we had only been associated with them because of a previous love affair, and we did not see the point anymore, or we had become disillusioned after Pearl Harbor. We were asked to name our affiliates, and we said it was difficult to recall the people we knew then, that our memory was fuzzy on the dates and locations. We said this even if our memory was not fuzzy. We did not want to get anyone in trouble. Judging by his scowling face, this man did not like these answers. However, he went away, and no one else came to see us, and so it seemed we were still leaving for the wilderness.

Some of our husbands left first. We watched them disappear into train terminals, through the doors of unmarked black sedans, down airport runways, and we were left behind, overwhelmed. We called our friends from the phone booth and they met us at the train station or at our house with a loaf of bread, or a chicken casserole and a flask. We wondered aloud how we would ever survive without our friends to comfort us. We wanted to tell them everything we knew and everything we worried about—how scared we were and how excited. We wanted to ask their advice about what to bring to the Southwest—dresses, shoes, lotions—but we could not.

On our last day we went to see Oklahoma! on Broadway or For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Mayan Theatre and we ate at the Italian restaurant, Luciano's, that we had always wanted to try. We returned our library books, we picked up a copy of the family medical records, we took a long walk alone and asked ourselves why we had not done this sooner. We saw, for what seemed like the first time, the things we liked about the city we were leaving—whispering to the other wives at the community swimming pool, seeing women our mothers' ages leaning in close to one another at the teahouse. And though we never actually went to the teahouse we found ourselves smiling every time we walked by it. We thought we would be joyful saying good-bye to the unfriendly pharmacist, Mr. Williams, but that was not true.

We took the car to the shop to get the oil changed. We dropped off our children's old bike tires, our worn-out bathing cap, and a bucket of nails our husbands left in the garage at the Junior League's Metal and Rubber Drive. We bought a few more war bonds. Some of us had been smart enough to ask about gas and electric, and on our last day we bought an electric toaster, because we were told that where we were going would not have natural gas. We went to the ration office and handed a sealed envelope to the woman at the counter, as our husbands had instructed. She read the letter inside, gave us a curious look, and provided us with enough gas rations to get our car to the other side of the country.

We went to Barbara's and got a manicure; we requested a bright cherry red, even though we knew it would chip by the end of the day. We sewed curtains for rooms we had never seen, hoping the colors would look right and the dimensions would be correct. We packed the linens and not the piano, and we were secretly happy to realize our children would not be able to continue lessons where we were going—we were told there was no piano teacher—which meant we would no longer have to hear them practicing Chopsticks over and over again.

Or we were appalled our children would not have the necessary experience of piano at a young age and though we did not think we made good teachers—we were too soft, or we were too impatient—once we arrived and unpacked our dishes, we volunteered to teach piano in the lodge, which was also the movie theater, the gymnasium, and the community mess hall. Several children would learn to play Bach after dinner.

We lied and told our children we were packing because we would be spending August with their grandparents in Denver or Duluth. Or we said we did not know where we were going, which was the truth, but our children, who did not trust that adults went places without knowing where they were going, thought we were lying. Or we told them it was an adventure and they would find out when we got there.

The movers came and out went our sofa, our books, and our cutlery. As they loaded boxes, our neighbors drove past, slowed down, doubled back, and asked, Where you headed?, and, Why didn't you tell us? We would have thrown you a party, and, You've been great neighbors. You'll be missed. We said, Vacation, or, Change of scenery, or, Jim's work. Our neighbors did not believe us, though they smiled as if they did.

We boarded trains in Philadelphia, or in Chicago, with GIs all looking identical in their dog tags, their black-rimmed glasses, their gosling-short hair. Perhaps it was unpatriotic, but we were annoyed at the GIs who ate before us and delayed our dinners until ten o'clock, and who therefore made our children less manageable. Though we were only twenty-five, we were tired, and we were with our children, who reminded us of what we were tethered to, children who were bored for hours and who pinched and kicked one another. When our children whined, He hit me! She started it! after eight hours on the train we ran out of ways to keep them occupied, and instead we finally just stared out the window as if we were noticing the beige nuances of tan landscapes, which we were not. By the time we arrived we had seen so many mountains they had lost any sense of the majestic.

Or, less frequently, our husbands went with us. They drove us in red Studebakers, in green Oldsmobiles, our backseats filled with clothes, books, children, and the family cat, Roscoe, who meowed for hours. We stopped along the way to visit our parents, who asked repeatedly where we were going, and whom we could not tell.

Our fathers pounded their fists on the table, said, You think we are Nazi spies? Tell us! Our mothers said, Be careful. Or, Write me as soon as you can. And our children got fearful, and cried, Tell them, but we did not tell them, or our children. Later, when our fathers cooled off, when they said, touching our arm, I'm your father, you can tell me anything, we did not tell them where we were going, because we still did not know.

We hugged our mothers, pecked our fathers on the cheek, glanced out the window to see our husbands checking the air pressure in the tires. Our mothers understood; our mothers had kept great secrets. We loaded up the children, the cat, and the snacks, and headed west.

CHAPTER 2

US


We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people's political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics—we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

Not all of us were born in America and not all of us knew the academic world. Some of our parents had immigrated while our own mothers were in their third trimester with us, and some of us had immigrated when we were newly married and not yet pregnant ourselves. We left Paris when we heard the Germans were taking over the city, or we left Italy when we woke one cold January morning to hear a Nazi anthem being sung in an upbeat tenor outside our bedroom window. We asked, What is happening to the world? We packed two suitcases. Our husbands told the military men at the checkpoint we were just leaving on holiday, and we boarded a plane to America instead.

Some of us remembered World War I from the vantage point of elementary school age worries—going without salt, butter, and cookies—and now as young adults we did not want to get involved.

Or we thought about the December morning in 1941 when the Japanese—depending on who told the story—were angered by trade embargoes that restricted their purchase of oil and metals, or wanted to possess all of the islands in the Pacific Ocean. We went to Spanish Relief parties the night before Pearl Harbor with our husbands, and the next day, when the war broke out, we both decided there were more pressing crises than the Spanish cause. That was three years ago, and we had followed so much news it was hard to keep up. But we knew this: Germany's Hitler and Italy's Mussolini were taking over Europe. Japan's Tojo was dominating the Pacific. We heard Japan was getting closer to their goal—they had captured Borneo, Java, and Sumatra, they had overthrown the British-ruled Singapore—and in Europe the news of German occupations gave many of us the desire to do something. The Axis and the Allies. Would it never end?


(Continues...)

Excerpted from THE WIVES of LOS ALAMOS by TARASHEA NESBIT. Copyright © 2014 TaraShea Nesbit. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Interviews

A Conversation with TaraShea Nesbit, Author of The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos is based on the true story the families sent to live in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the top secret Manhattan project. When did you first think about the story of the wives and families of the more famous male scientists?

I read a memoir by one of the female scientists who worked on the atomic bomb. In the midst of championing the atomic bomb's usage, she said something about never understanding why one scientist's wife seemed to dislike her. And she repeated it later, as if an unconscious feeling were betraying her assertive, logical, and proud recollections. I grew increasingly curious to know what these women had to say about their time in an undisclosed location in New Mexico. I wanted to explore young marriages put into an environment with a level of secrecy that created distance between the two partners, and I wanted to think about the lives of a particular educated class of women in the 1940s—their world as social beings, their power, their interiorities—as well as their participation and complicity in this thread of history.

This sort of question pursues me today: what do I support without my knowledge? The making of the atomic bomb is a significant historical marker to explore a trans-historical problem. I realized quickly that this particular turning point in WWII, when secrets were considered necessary for national security, and fear was high, is not unlike the present.

Why did you decide to use the collective "we" as the narrator for Wives of Los Alamos?

The point of view came about as I read oral histories, memoirs, and archival documents. I noticed that the women frequently moved from a first person position, "I came to Los Alamos by way of New York," to a first person plural, "We all complained about our stoves." This move suggested to me the collective identity inherent in a small closed off community, but also the tensions within the community. Within circles—of friends, of towns, of colleagues—there can be a struggle, or if not a struggle let's say a discrepancy, between the public persona and the private self. I found that this point of view, the first person plural, was in accordance with what I saw reflected in the women's accounts of their own lives, and it was also useful as a method to build and explore these tensions, where the group identity—wife, American, mother, those fighting against something they all agreed upon—is often at the forefront. But the individual is there, too, and asserts herself.

What kind of research was needed to accurately portray New Mexico and "the mesa" where these families lived and worked in the 1940's?

When I was researching Hanford, I read biographies, newsletters, even physics textbooks, but it wasn't until I read memoirs by women, that the wives' voices came to me. I read more memoirs by a few of the women, including Phyllis Fisher's Los Alamos Experience, and then I ordered and read every book the Los Alamos Historical Society published that collected the women's stories. I also listened to many oral histories from husbands and wives recollecting their time in Los Alamos during WWII, and then I visited Los Alamos. While working on the book over the next few years I traveled to Los Alamos several times, at the Los Alamos Historical Society sifted through archival documents and photographs and had conversations with the staff about details I still had questions about.

Your novel tells about the challenges that the wives faced in Los Alamos when they moved there—spotty water and electricity, insufficient housing, the secrecy of their husband's jobs, among others—what do you think was the biggest challenge the women at Los Alamos faced?

Many of the challenges these wives experienced are not dissimilar to the challenges men and women face today: how to create an environment of love and shelter for our families, how to be the parents and spouses that we hope to be. What we define and attend to and label as the biggest challenge varies so much that I'm hesitant to say any one experience was the wives' biggest challenge. For some women, the ability to just raise a family with some kind of normalcy—children fed, meals made, clothes washed, family members able to shower—was the biggest challenge. Many women struggled with the loneliness of not having their networks of family and friends from back home with whom they could talk candidly. Other women, like Phyllis Fisher, reflect a great deal on the atomic bomb's use and their role in it; Phyllis went to Hiroshima after WWII and begins her memoir, The Los Alamos Experience, with an apology to those affected by the atomic bomb. She addresses the "little lady of Hiroshima": "I wanted to tell you [little lady of Hiroshima] that, as an American woman, I grieved with you. I wanted to say, 'I'm sorry.'"

What role do the men, the "husbands of Los Alamos" play in the novel?

The husbands are a source of great love and admiration, at times, as well as great sources of frustration and longing. The husbands have this great secret and that was certainly a source of conflict in some marriages. Once this weapon was used, and the women learned what they, too, had helped build, there was potential for greater intimacy as well as potential for greater separation or resentment. Some women agreed with their husbands' choices while others had deep reservations.

What is your creative process like? Do you write all at once or over a long period of time?

My writing process is haphazard. I drink coffee, I read, I take notes, I take a walk, I stare at the wall, I pet the dog, I call my mom, I teach, I reread what I wrote earlier in the day, I cook dinner, I take a bath. I often begin projects with a phrase that seems to come out of nowhere, but this project was a bit different. The voice came to me first. Then scenes emerged. The structure came over time during the revision process. I wrote the first draft very quickly, in less than a year, and then I spent another two years revising. But I see now that the writing of the story began long before I actually started typing, back when I was living in Tacoma and taking notes about the Manhattan Project site in Richland, Washington and thinking about how their high school mascot is [still] an atomic bomber.

Who have you discovered lately?

Grief and loss have been central to my writing and thinking lately, in response to the death of my infant daughter, and I've been moved by two books that explore these themes in intense, messy, hopeful, and at times humorous ways: Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped and Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation.

Jesmyn Ward's memoir is an elegy to her brother and four male friends who died in the span of four years, but it is many other things as well: a characterization of a place, DeLisle, Mississipi; a commentary on poverty and racism in America today; and an attentive exploration of masculinity. The men in Ward's memoir die from a variety of things—suicide, overdose, murder, and a car accident—but their deaths speak to larger social problems, such as cycles of poverty, that defy one's ability to believe in the ease of an American dream. It's a beautifully sad and powerful book.

Jenny Offill's new book does a lot with few words, and I love how she uses sparseness to create exacting detail of one woman's experience as a new mother, and what parenthood unearths about the relationship between the two parents. The text feels open and expansive and humorous, coming from a lineage of lyric essays and poems and great short novels.

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