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18 March 2014

TaraShea Nesbit: The Wives of Los Alamos

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A personal story about the A Bomb
This is a little story about a much bigger story. From 1943 to 1945 the US put together one of the biggest technical and construction projects ever - the development and creation of the Atomic Bomb - and managed to do it  in the greatest secrecy. A lot of the work in uranium enrichment was done at many locations across the country but the brains of the project were located in Los Alamos in a pretty remote area of New Mexico. There is no way a project of that scope could be undertaken in such secrecy in this day and age of instant communication, and satellites.

The brains of the project were civilian scientists, mainly eminent physicists from universities throughout the US and around the world. They were there for the long haul and were allowed to bring their wives and families to this out of the way place which was not prepared for them when they got there. There were few houses and when they were built they were very basic. The water supply was poor, and basic supplies were in short supply. They were a long way from anywhere, were seldom allowed to go outside the compound and the husbands worked almost 24/7.

The "Wives" (We ) were mainly in their 30's with young families or just starting families. "We" were mostly highly educated females living an academic lifestyle who were thrown together without much warning  in a remote community that was not really ready to accommodate them. Their family lives changed overnight. Their husbands became workaholics who couldn't tell them what they were doing and they couldn't tell anyone else, especially their parents, exactly where they were and why they were there. Even birth certificates were recorded as PO Box 1663, Santa Fe.

"The Wives of Los Alamos" is an attempt to describe their lives and their reactions to their situation in a narrative written in the first person plural "We". In some ways this succeeds but in others it doesn't because it prevents characterisation and lumps the good and the bad into one bag. What it does do is to emphasise how the wives had to pull together to survive in an environment when their husbands were not able to play a full role in their lives and had to lie to them in ways akin to unfaithful husbands. Despite all of this secrecy they knew that something big was about to happen and stayed up all night to view, at a distance, the most secret of all things, the first test explosion of an Atomic Bomb.

This book told me more about the human side of the project that changed the world forever. The wives had to club together in a way seldom seen in western society. When it was all over the forced camaraderie disappeared. Some remembered the experience with euphoria but many had lifetime worries about their place in such a world changing event. "Near the end we began to pull away from one another, we stopped by unannounced less frequently and started looking for the next thing."

This was an interesting book but I really didn't connect with the style and would have preferred to hear the story from personal and not a joint perspective.

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