In 1943, a military base and laboratory sprang to secretive life in a corner of New Mexico, bringing a group of scientists together for the Manhattan Project — the making of the first atomic bomb. They and their families shared a single Santa Fe post-office box for a mailing address and a life hidden behind a veil of Army censors, shrouded in secrecy from friends.
TaraShea Nesbit’s debut novel breathes life into the domestic side of this story through the collective voice of the scientists’ wives — their perceptions, reactions, frustrations, and pleasures — while showcasing the range of the women’s backgrounds and careers: “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. . . . 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.”
Though it may take several pages of reading to immerse yourself fully in this narrative approach, ultimately it’s the quiet power of this format that drives the story forward.
Nesbit establishes a level of unease and wartime menace from the start. As some husbands go on ahead to Los Alamos, their families engage in normal pastimes — final visits to the theater and favorite restaurants, manicures, returning library books, sewing new curtains, and packing — completely unaware of the more destabilizing aspects of their life to come.
The women were assured that their new homes would be equipped with all available creature comforts, but they weren’t informed “that the school, the homes, and the hospital had not yet been built.”
Arriving at their destination, a place full of heat and dust, adobe houses and military fences, the women were fingerprinted and renamed (“Mrs. Fermi became Mrs. Farmer and Mrs. Mueller was now Mrs. Miller. We knew that we were becoming part of an entity larger than our families, larger than ourselves, and we weren’t necessarily happy about it . . . We were no longer in charge of ourselves or even our own names.”).
Never losing sight of the wartime details — the Japanese internments in America, Allied forces landing at Sicily, Mussolini’s arrest, the bombing of Dresden — Nesbit focuses on the very immediate concerns of living with rattlesnakes, military police, and a severe lack of bathtubs.
We get a handful of names — Louise, Margaret, Katherine, Starla — a skeletal outline of characters through which to follow the community’s gossip, parties, practical jokes, and fascinating glimpses into the wives’ isolated lives.
Some worked as mail carriers, teachers, secretaries, and lab technicians, or volunteered for the “protection team”: “we issued passes to new residents and listened for spies. . . . We were given a list of watchwords . . . Uranium. Fission. The Gadget. We were told to look for nervousness, to listen for inflection, and we thought we would be brilliant at this kind of work: we had a lifetime of experience in paying attention. But we never caught a spy.” (As it turned out, there was a spy, “someone we never suspected. . . . We thought he was just shy.”)
They cope with sullen teens and restless children while observing whose marriages were cracking; they tolerated their cars being spot-searched for stolen metal by MPs (yielding, instead, kids’ animal crackers). They describe falling in love with the landscape around them, borrowing dresses and sharing British tea, eagerly awaiting new arrivals and trading “our second pair of blue jeans for sugar, nylons, and secrets.” And they witness a world-changing explosion in the desert in July 1945: “our town had made something as strong and bright as the sun.”
Quietly revealing, “The Wives of Los Alamos’’ offers an unusual glimpse into a singular community where war, science, and home life collided.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.