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The Wives of Los Alamos Hardcover – February 25, 2014
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Amazon Q&A with TaraShea Nesbit, author of The Wives of Los Alamos.
1. What drew you to this time and place?
TaraShea Nesbit: My fascination with the history of the atomic bomb started with learning about a high school in eastern Washington that has an atomic bomber as their mascot; after that, I researched nuclear waste, and I just kept going back and back to the source of the bomb. Though I read about the lead scientists, even more interesting to me was to think of what life was like for their educated, newly married wives who followed their husbands to an unknown location in New Mexico. I wanted to know these women and be their friend and make more space in the world for their voices.
2. What do you enjoy reading and writing about historical fiction?
TSN: In historical fiction, time has stopped, at least for a little while, and I get to see, in slow motion, how co-existing experiences and points of view interact with and affect one another. Another thrill is how much historical fiction actually reveals about the time period in which it is written—the preoccupations and focuses of revisionist history, for example, shift as our contemporary moment shifts. I love that historical fiction enables a reader to inhabit both the consciousness of a contemporary author and the world of the past.
3. What are some books that have influenced you as a writer?
TSN: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, Studs Turkel’s What Work Is, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Julianna Spahr’s The Transformation, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Jennifer Denrow's California, and the Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge books by Evan S. Connell.
4. What do you hope readers take away from The Wives of Los Alamos?
TSN: I hope the book adds complexity to readers’ understanding of the 1940s and atomic bomb history, while encouraging them to seek out more information. I want readers to enjoy spending time in the environment the book created, and it would be great if readers notice parallels between these women and that time and the present day.
Discussion Questions for The Wives of Los Alamos.
1. The Wives of Los Alamos is narrated in first person plural. While individual women are mentioned, the wives speak as a group. How does this affect your understanding of them and their story? Do you come to know any of them as individuals? What was your emotional response to this stylistic choice?
2. From the very beginning, the town of Los Alamos is one defined by secrets. Who is keeping information secret from whom? What type of information does each group within the community have access to and how does that information give them power?
3. The wives of Los Alamos are often pregnant, their families steadily growing. What does it mean to be a mother in this community? What do you think it would be like to grow up in that environment, only to move back into the world after the bombs had been dropped?
4. The wives have very different responses to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What are those responses? Are you able to relate to all of them, or are there some you have trouble understanding?
5. As the community of Los Alamos disperses, the wives observe: “Saying good-bye to our friends was not just saying good-bye to them, we were saying good-bye to part of ourselves” (207). What are they leaving behind as they leave Los Alamos? How has this experience changed them?
An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: Written in the first person plural--the collective “we”--TaraShea Nesbit’s debut is both understated and poetic as it describes the lives of the women who accompanied their scientist husbands to the American desert to work on a secret project that turned out to be the making of the atomic bomb. “We were Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio. . .” Nesbit writes, and so they were: all different, of course, and yet much the same as they came to bear and raise children, and make lives in a dangerous and secretive time and place. What was it like to be attached to a project you weren’t allowed any knowledge of? How did such a world-changing invention change you, your marriage, your family? These are the questions Nesbit tackles in this stunning novel, both concise and elliptical. In style, it echoes Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (also a first-person-plural account, of the Japanese internment in WWII.) Also like that book, it sheds light on historical events too rarely discussed in literature. This debut is a tour-de-force, in a quiet, careful and winning way. --Sara Nelson
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Top Customer Reviews
I may be biased, as I grew up in Los Alamos, having arrived there in the mid fifties. The Gate was still there. I remember that everyone 12 and over had to have a pass to get in or out. It was something we kids looked forward to getting, a rite of passage so to speak. They discontinued the Gate when I was 11. I was crushed. But the tower exists to this day.
There were just enough inaccuracies to be irritating. As other reviewers have stated, Los Alamos is much more mountain than desert. There are no sand storms there. It does not get hot in the summer. In June the temperature may reach high 80's or maybe even 90. But it is a very dry climate, so 90 in Los Alamos does not feel like 90 in Omaha. Then in July and August the rainy season comes and it can feel downright cold. The author also mentions a group toasting the Queen (of England), but Elizabeth did not ascend the throne until 1951. (OK, that's petty, I know.) Los Alamos is like no other city in New Mexico, both in climate and temperament. The other "climate" of Los Alamos is what really sets it apart. Imagine a town with the highest per capita of PhDs and the highest income in one of the poorest states. Now realize that the city really does sit on a mountain and is very isolated. I can remember other "secrets." Basically the infidelity, the drug and alcohol abuse, and the suicides. She does mention a high cancer rate. The debate continues as to whether this was related to the Lab. I have no doubt that the increased incidence of cancer in Los Alamos is very real.
I realize that after the War, Los Alamos became a totally different place. The Lab is still full of secrets, and classified scientific research continues to this day. But there are now schools, stores, clubs and churches, as in any other small town. I can't really comment on what it was like to live there in the 1940's, though I knew a few people who were there then and stayed. Unfortunately, after reading this book, I still don't have the feel as to what it was like during that time period. I was hoping Ms. Nesbit would have taken us back there, but she did not.
The writing style of the author was such that it conveyed the ambiguity of the wives by talking in generalities.
When I say this made me think and discuss the subject, I wanted to discuss it more, but frankly I find it difficult to find people/friends who want to get involved in conversations that go to the core of war itself and/or eithical/moral issues related to developing weapons that can literally wipe out civilizations, etc. Considering the state of affairs today -- with Iran and other rogue nations developing nuclear weapons -- deterrence really is the name of the game for the continuance of mankind. In the near future, many more so-called rogue nations will have the capability of wiping out millions with one armed missle. Though we may "trust" such a weapon in the hands of the United States, who would believe the U.S. would actually release the weapon it did in WWII? In the hands of rogue nations, there is a real and dangerous threat to all of mankind. Thus, disarmnament by the so-called trusted nations alone is meaningless and leaves them at risk by those who would abuse the power. This is a subject that demands more open and serious discussion among so-called "friendly" governments in order to deter those who would (when they could) unleash such power.
I am inspired to read more on this subject, so for that alone I believe this author did her job. Thanks.