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May book - The Wives of Los Alamos

(105 Posts)
LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 01-May-14 10:38:36

This month's book pick is The Wives of Los Alamos...

Told in the collective voices of the wives of the men who created the atom bomb, this is the bold and emotionally charged story of the women of Los Alamos.

Their average age was twenty-five. They came from Berkeley, Cambridge, Paris, London and Chicago - and arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure. But hope quickly turned to hardship in the desolate military town where everything was a secret; including what their husbands were doing at the lab.

If you received one of our free copies don't forget to leave your comments and questions below! We'll be sending questions off to TaraShea towards the end of May.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 10:57:32


Thanks for my copy of this unusual book
I have started it and my question is, what was the impetus to write this book and why did the author choose this writing style?

is there a link to your Phd ?

The point of view came about as I listened to oral histories of women who lived in Los Alamos during WWII, which are available as a podcast from the Los Alamos Historical Society. I noticed that the women frequently moved from a first person point of view, "I came to Los Alamos by way of Chicago," to a first person plural position, "We all complained about the military." This move suggested to me the collective identity that is part of any small community, but also the tensions within that collectiveness. I decided on the point of view of The Wives of Los Alamos very early in my research and writing process because I found that this point of view, the “we”, was in accordance with what I saw reflected in the women's accounts of their own lives. It was also a useful strategy to explore the tensions of a small closed off community, of our public and private selves, and of the complicated moral and ethical problems that arose following the creation of the atomic bomb.

@pattieb, you asked for a link to my PhD—did you mean the PhD program? If so, here it is:

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 10:59:24


I have just finished it and found it a thoughtful book and in a style I have never read before.
I would never have chosen it but I learned a lot and enjoyed it.
As pattieb has asked, what promoted the author to write about this particular subject? Did she have family involved?

I have two personal connections to atomic history. I’m from Dayton, Ohio, which is a lesser-known secret Manhattan Project site, and continues to be a military town, so it was perfectly normal to not know what one’s parents or friends’ parents did at work all day.

Also, atomic bombs are made from uranium and my husband’s grandfather was a uranium prospector throughout the western United States in the early 50s during the cold war. There is a story of him working in the desert when he saw a great light in the distance—what we now know to be an atomic bomb test. Radioactive ash landed on his forearm and he wiped it away, not knowing it was radioactive material from an atomic bomb.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:02:19


Thankyou for my free copy
I have just finished this book its very different..the style of writing took a bit of getting used too but never the less I couldn't put it down and finished it very quickly.
I would like to ask the author if this will be made into a tv serial I think it could be adapted quite well and would prove to be very interesting..or if it already has been a tv program that I may have missed?

I agree with you, @weather! The book is available for a television option.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:03:36


Found the style of writing unusual but also that it was easy to read quickly.

I would like to ask the reasons behind wanting to write this book. It's an interesting subject and I'd not thought about the wives and children involved before.

I’m learning that I have a compulsion to tell the stories of lesser-heard voices of history. This particular story came to me after reading a memoir by a female scientist. She offhandedly mentioned Laura Fermi, the wife of the famous physicist Enrico Fermi, and it occurred to me in that moment that the wives' voices need to be heard. The scientists’ stories have been told well in books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, but the wives’ stories had not been given the same kind of attention. I wanted to make more space in the world for their stories.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:04:35


As others have mentioned, the narrative written in the plural is unusual but effective - it enforces the " we're in this together" feeling very well. I enjoyed the book a lot. I knew nothing about Los Alamos, and have since read up a little on it.
Tarashea, have you visited Los Alamos? Were you able to stay there? Have you met any members of the original families involved?

I live about a six-hour drive away from Los Alamos and have stayed there on several occasions. It is a particularly stunning part of the world. When I was writing the book I would visit to do research at the Los Alamos city archives, walk around the original bath tub row homes, explore Fuller Lodge, and talk with archivists and the women that run the Los Alamos Historical Society. I did meet one wife, though sadly most have passed away, and I have been in contact with a few children who grew up in Los Alamos.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:05:47


Thankyou for my copy of the book. I too have never read writing in this style before. I found it very strange and a little uncomfortable at first. I am halfway through, and enjoying it but would like to ask the author if she was at all worried about alienating readers by choosing this writing style? It certainly was a brave choice !

The point of view does something different with character than a traditional novel often does and I thought about how the first person plural point of view might appear difficult to readers because it is a less popular narrative perspective. But I was intent on providing a collective narrative experience that highlighted the tiny self in the larger story of the bomb’s creation. It is actually a perspective with a long history and one that is being used more and more frequently. I talk in depth about the rise in first person plural narration in a recent article for the Guardian, here:

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:12:07


I was delighted to receive this book as I recently visited Los Alamos when visiting family and granddaughter in the US. The road trip holiday we had took us to New Mexico and Santa Fe, and we went to Los Alamos to visit the museum there. So, I started reading this book with excitement and anticipation. Yes, the descriptions of the amazing sparse mountainous desert were all there, and I felt as though I was really into the story very quickly because I could picture so much of the place as I read.

The anonymous PO Box which was the address is all true and TaraShea has done a brilliant job with the research. Having watched a film at the museum, the description of Oppenheimer in his pork pie hat is spot on.

I was a bit disconcerted at first by the collective "we" method of telling the story, but on reflection found it an interesting device to use to convey the all in it togetherness of the wives in that situation. I'd like to ask TaraShea if

a) She chose the collective voice deliberately as a kind of Greek chorus to tell the story. It also reminded me of the chorus of women who tell the story in T.S.Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral".

b) Did she visit Los Alamos and the museum and the surrounding area? I think she must have done as she describes the New Mexico desert so well and conveys a realistic feel of what it's like there.

I really liked the bitchy catty snippet about the women who "accidentally" forgot not to flush the loo when water was short, just to annoy the hostess. That was very real. (no I wouldn't do anything like that!)

Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.

a) I did think of the origins of the first person plural point of view as generating with the Greek chorus—my article for the Guardian talks even more about this—but I wanted to really explore the tensions that exist within differentiation, too. These women are not all alike, though their situation is similar, and the use of the “we” gave way to individuals pushing against that collective identity. So it was partly informed by the Greek chorus and partly something I developed on my own.

b) I have! Several times. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, @purplehairstreak.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:17:04


I have now finished reading the book, which I was grateful to receive, but didn't enjoy. The use of the collective accounts meant that it was less involving - interesting as social history, but it didn't draw me in, as an individual's account might have done.
I wondered when I began reading the book if the format might change as the story progressed. When it didn't, I found myself skipping a lot of the accounts of daily life as they were often no more than lists and remained impersonal even though names were attached to some 'individuals'.
Obviously a great deal of research went into it, but I felt that if it had focused on a few people only, it could have been harder hitting. Was the author's device a means of avoiding such character development?

Every map has its scale. I wanted to provide a broad base of characterization with which to consider a much larger story. Focusing character development on a few would limit how much I could include of the diversity of experience I’m representing. The novel does not do character in a way some readers are accustomed to, but this point of view is one that is being employed more often by novelists, in part, because I think it highlights the conflict between individual responsibility within collective identities. The novel becomes, I hope, a story that explores memory by depicting conflicting accounts of similar situations and explores culpability by giving no one person blame. The point of view choice highlights individuals within group systems, rather than privileging the individual’s choice. A “we” can be blameless and shadowed and unified and conflicted. It was important to me that no one person is privileged over another.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:18:13


Incase anyone wonders what I was on about in my previous message - it was a response to someone who noted they toasted the queen but in fact we had a king during the war.

I have finished the book. I found it easy to read but as others have mentioned the style didn't particularly appeal. However, I did think it was very effective for the subject matter and left me with a better understanding of what it must have been like for the wives than if it had been based on a small group of wives. I did feel there was a sort of rhythm to the writing.

Did Tara Shea talk to women who had been there or did she base her novel on written accounts?

I had difficulty finding any wives still living, so I listened to oral histories, read memoirs, and went to Los Alamos to view archival documents.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:19:36


I really enjoyed this book - unlike anything I have read before. I would like to ask the author what inspired to use this unusual style and was it easier or harder to write this way than regular prose?

The choice was inspired by listening to oral histories of the women recalling their own lives—they narrated in the “we” point of view by saying things like, “It was like this for us,” even when they were asked what it was like for them, individually. It was definitely a narrative challenge for me—it is much easier to write in first-person “I,” or narrate in a close third person, “he” or “she,” but that point of view would not fulfil my project for this story.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:20:35


I found this a very interesting and entertaining read. I knew virtually nothing about the 2 years the USA invested in this science project in the desert. I found the Los Alamos visitor's web site and discovered a short video filmed in the 50's of the town, and saw the bath tub houses, water tower and apartments that the families got to know so well.
Like Lowslung has previously asked, I would be interested to know if the author found and interviewed many of the families that lived there in the last years of the war.

I didn’t when I was writing, in part because I needed to not be beholden to any one account and in part because I could not locate them. In my research I found that the women’s recollections often conflicted with one another, which becomes a fascinating point about memory. But since the book has been published women and children have emailed me and sent me letters. I was worried that they would find fault with my depictions, but the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Hearing from readers has been one of my favourite parts about publishing this book.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:22:59


I enjoyed reading the book, the style of writing made it compulsive - I found myself reading quickly and with very few pauses. The third person plural did however make it less personal and emotional, I would like to ask the author if this was a desired effect. Did the inspiration for the writing style come from any other literary source?

I was first alerted to the writing from a collective point of view about four years before I began my book, when I read Julianna Spahr’s The Transformation, which is told in a third person plural “they” perspective, about a group of three people. And when I started my novel I was reading the very funny and very sad Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouredník, in which the author represents the twentieth century with all its contradictions in a very short book that exists as a kind of listing of unusual facts placed side by side with very ingenious results.

I’d chosen the point of view for The Wives of Los Alamos and was nearly complete with the first draft when I decided to write an essay about the history of this point of view, in order to understand its origins and think more on what the point of view can do. It begins with the Greek chorus and leads into more contemporary novels that provide varying degrees of differentiation within the collective experience: Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to an End, Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs, Kate Walbert's Our Kind, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, Justin Torres' We the Animals and Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:24:45


I've recommended this very different book to my Book Group so will be interested to hear their views when we meet in June.

I found it quite refreshing, atmospheric and very descriptive. I can't help but feel that the author must have had some family member with experience or has done intense research to enable her to find the believable voice which she has so cleverly done in this book. Can she tell us if that was the case?

I was not a wife myself, nor was anyone in my family, but I did do extensive research, and felt a strong connection to these women, even though we are separated by six decades (see above responses for more details).

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:25:57


Well I am still plodding my way through this book and feeling very virtuous with a new Stephen King and a half-read Dean Koontz lurking on my bookshelves. The book is oddly fascinating and at last it seems something is happening in that there has been a trial explosion, but it is not gripping enough to leave my bedside table as a "must see what happens next" book. A lot of thought and research has obviously gone into this account but I am left wondering why it was written. Was the author one of these wives? Is writing it in some way cathartic? And why do the military still have checkpoints on the roads around Los Alamos?

I wasn’t one of these wives, but I am married to a physicist, and I wrote this book when I was newly married and had recently relocated to the dry, sunny landscape Colorado, which is about a five-hour drive from Los Alamos. The word catharsis comes from the Ancient Greek κάθαρσις (kátharsis, “cleansing, purging”), and though I was not personally cleansing repressed emotion, I did write this novel with great urgency, as if, almost, by transcription from the imagined voices of these collective wives.

There are checkpoints around Los Alamos today because the Los Alamos National Lab is still a classified federal government lab that works on national security research. Many of the details are, as you might guess, top secret.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:29:18


Thank you for my copy of The Wives of Los Alamos. Like numberplease I am also grateful to Gransnet for introducing me to books and authors that I may not have chosen for myself.

When I first started reading The Wives of Los Alamos I found the style of writing strange but very quickly adapted to it. Because each chapter deals with a particular theme and then within that theme each section has a separate identity, I felt that it would have been very interesting to write it.

I would like to ask TaraShea how she tackled this style of writing? For example ... having established the initial planning for the book, were you able to jot down each memory and anecdote separately as the ideas came to you then jiggle them about until they seemed in the right place, adding more as it came into your head?

Also - how much of the book was based on previous interviews with the real wives of Los Alamos? Very interesting to read on this thread that morag89 could relate to the military family aspect of the book. I shall certainly be looking out for the books mentioned in your acknowledgements.

All the best with your PhD, TaraShea. It's hard work but very rewarding.

You’ve described it exactly, @nonnanna. I’d write the scenes that came to me as they came, and did not worry about their placement until later. The first draft came to very quickly and I felt I had to write fast to keep up with the voices I heard and worry about the structure and order of things once I’d finished.

I based a lot of the stories on previous interviews with real wives. In fact I thought of it as nonfiction for a long time, and by some definitions it really is nonfiction. But to me all nonfiction is fiction, in that an author is curating—she leaves out certain things, she can’t know the whole story. Writer Mary McCarthy talks about the relationship between fiction and nonfiction by saying that when we enter the private world of the self we inevitably “meet the grinning face of fiction at the door.”

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:30:45


I loved this book, and found it very thought-provoking. The use of the first person plural was so effective in summoning up the actions and thoughts of a diverse group of people, I'm surprised I haven't come across this style before. I also loved the Linotype Garamond Three!

My question for the author would be:
Near the end of the book, you quote Robert Oppenheimer ending his speech to the Los Alamos community by saying "A day may come when men and women will curse the name Los Alamos". Do you have a personal view on this? Do you feel that finishing "the project" was immoral or a necessary evil?

Thank you again, Ms Nesbit and Gransnet, for an engrossing read.

What I’ve learned from my research into atomic history is that the stories of the past are much more complicated than we may think they are in retrospect. Many scientists felt that the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary, while the development of the bomb was fine. They wanted it to be tested somewhere remote, not detonated on civilians, but once they had developed the atomic bomb, the power of their creation was no longer in their jurisdiction. So the making of the atomic bomb is a larger story about humanity and human frailty—about fear, greed, power, curiosity, and control. I don’t advocate for many of these human qualities, and I would prefer that some of them did not exist. Yet here they are on earth, in their varied forms, out of my control. I’m very concerned about what I support without my knowledge, more generally. I pay taxes to a government and that government uses my money to build things I might very much oppose, if I knew they were being built. But I don’t, and I can’t, and that leaves me—and I know I’m not alone in this feeling—very bewildered. I am bewildered, but not hopeless. I have a responsibility to be as informed as possible, to continue to be curious and to do work that brings forth lesser-told, or previously untold narratives, as a way of countering this bewilderment.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:32:05


I read the first chapter and assumed that the use of the first person plural would end there - but looked on and was amazed to see it continued right through. I didn't think I would last through it, but I did and loved it!! Well done Nesbit: not an easy thing to do I am sure. I look forward to your next book. What are you working on now - apart from the little matter of a PhD?!?

I’m hesitant to say too much about it, but I’m working on another often-told story in history, from previously untold perspectives. This one is from the 17th century about a transatlantic journey. It starts in Europe and ends in America, but the characters, which are based on real people, are not the people or the stories you’ve been told before. There is mystery, love, grief, adventure, death, and a few different kinds of births.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:33:07


I have just finished reading this novel and loved the size of the book and the way it was set out in short chapters and clearly cut paragraphs.
As in common with some of the reviewers here, I found the style unique and not always easy to comprehend the meaning. However, it did suit the theme well.
I am intrigued to learn what prompted the author to adopt the theme and the style. Will this be replicated in her next book.
Thank you for introducing me to an unknown theme and such a distinctive written style.

I did not cut paragraphs, but rather gave myself the challenge of saying as much as I could with as few amount of words as possible. I have a preference for lean prose—texts that respect the reader enough to say only as much as one needs to, and nothing more. My next novel is completely different in form, though my preference for brevity remains. But the new book is not told in first person plural and the chapters follow linear time more closely.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:34:14


Thank you for my copy. I haven't finished it yet but like others have not read a book with a similar style. I'd like to know how the novelist actually wrote it, by dealing with one character at a time? I shall tell the Book Group I belong to about it.

I mostly wrote it with the simultaneity of voices happening at the same time, rather than choosing one character and following her story and then repeating that process. It does sound a bit wild, now that I think about it, that I was moving through a chapter about home life and thinking of the many varied ways the wives’ time was experienced, for example, but because I had conducted so much research, their voices came to me all at once, with strong, differing opinions.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:36:19


This is the first book I have read written in first person plural and I don't quite know what to think of it. I haven't finished the whole book yet but I'm finding it hard to bond with or even remember anyone in the book. I understand that the way it is written gives more emphasis on how bewildered everyone was but still it didn't involve me with the characters. I did find the story very interesting but more in the shape of a history memoir than a fiction story. Like most people here I want to ask the author why first person plural? I wanted to know each individual story of the woman and also the locals who came to clean and care for children.

This was a choice of telling the larger story through specific details rather than choosing only a few stories to tell, as is the case in most traditional character-driven fiction. The point of view choice necessarily highlights a communal experience, but see my replies above for more details about the point of view.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:37:34


I found the book very compelling, perhaps because of the Greek chorus-like effect of the second person plural narration. I do agree with others here that it depersonalises the women to some extent. We are so used to stories that single out a few individuals to identify with that when an author refuses to do this, it's easy to feel distanced. I occasionally found myself trying to find characters who stood out in the group, and some did, but the author wasn't writing that sort of book.
It roasted feeling self-consciously like a creative writing exercise, but it was brilliantly sustained and the material was fascinating, so overall I really enjoyed reading it and I'm grateful to Gransnet for giving me the chance.
Also very impressed that this forum can provide people who know about Los Alamos! What a clever lot.
I'd love to know whether Tara Shea Nesbit had to stop herself reverting to more individualised story-telling as she was going along.

Because the point of view came first for me, and I was responding to the ways these real women recollected their own stories in oral histories, it came to me uncontested. I did try first-person singular and close third person for a few vignettes, and it did not match the project of the book.

TaraSheaNesbit Mon 16-Jun-14 11:38:54


I also really enjoyed the book - but the style was not new to me. I ready The Buddha In The Attic last year and it's written in the same style (as is the other book by that author whose name currently escapes me)

I would like to ask the author if she had read these (or other books using the style) and also I would like to know more about what happened to these families after the book ends so where can i find out more?

Julie Otsuka’s novel, The Buddha in the Attic, was published when I was finishing a draft of my novel, so I did not read it until I was nearly finished, but I did read all of the other great first-person plural novels out there while I was revising, because I wanting to think about how these narratives differed even though they were employing the same narrating agent. I read Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, Jeffrey Euginides’ The Virgin Suicides, and others I describe in this Guardian article:

If you’d like to read more about life in Los Alamos, take a look at the acknowledgements in The Wives of Los Alamos; I list several books that inspired the novel.

dorsetpennt Tue 17-Jun-14 09:29:41

I loved your book but there was an error that I would think was because, as an American, you aren't aware of our royal family's history. On page 190 in the hardback edition you state 'The British threw a final party and everyone roasted the Queen'. Our Queen was alive then but was a princess. Her father King George VI was our monarch with his Queen Elizabeth who later was known as The Queen Mother. The British at that time would have toasted the King and the Queen.
It didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book and I've passed it to several friends, two also noted the error, but they all really enjoyed it.

tttJay Wed 18-Jun-14 15:44:40

Thank you for my free book.....I'm sorry but I am not enjoying it, finding it hard going. However, I will persevere and then pass it to a group of friends who also read a lot...

winifred01 Fri 20-Jun-14 16:30:51

Thank you for the bookwhich I found easy to readand was very interesting.Good to read how women coped with a difficult period intheir life. Had not realised that there was rationing in tbe USA, found tbe comment 'tomato juice was no longer on ration'!