Tarashea Nesbit’s novel, “The Wives of Los Alamos” brings to life the fascinating and mysterious dawn of the nuclear era and the time that led up to the development and the launching of the two most infamous bombs, grossly dubbed “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the destructive power of which brought a decisive and controversial end to World War II.
In the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, barely more than a clusters of homesteaders in its early years, the U.S. government initiated its top-secret Manhattan Project, settling some of the brightest scientists and their families on the slopes of the Valles Caldera. The hope was that by bringing the best minds together in a classified setting, the terrible war could be brought to a purposeful close.
Written from the very unique perspective of first person plural, Nesbit cleverly evokes the nature of secrecy and isolation the group of Los Alamos scientists—and more significantly, their wives—experienced as they lived a reality in which they were given no information and were under orders not to share any. The women were a part of something bigger, a cog in the massive and intimidating war machine, and their sense of individuality fell away as they were molded into a temporary landscape that had been propped up like a very macabre film set.
Nesbit uses her choice of collective voice to deftly evoke the sense of anxiety and fear that the women shared, as they were forced to live in military housing, away from their friends and family, without explanation from either the government or their husbands about why they were there. No travel was permitted, except controlled visits to nearby Santa Fe, and no visits from relatives were allowed, increasing their feeling of alienation from the world at large.
In spite of the absence of a single protagonist or even any real main characters, the book is very intimate, as the author does a great job of simultaneously giving the women a single voice, often speaking as one, but just as often speaking as separate, though nameless, entities.
Present, too, is a desperate feeling of momentum, for the reader knows the outcome, the initial raison d’être for Los Alamos’s existence—the total destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nesbit rides that momentum directly through the powerful last pages, as the women are forced to come to terms with the results of their clever husbands’ scientific machinations.
The book is tightly woven, from start to finish, never losing the cohesion the collective voice gives it. The reader gets a sense that the history of these forgotten women has been shared in the only feasible way, as a diary of an ensemble cast, a group of unknowing patriots just trying to live day by day, like everyone else.