Sunday 30 March 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos

Finished March 26
The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit

This novel has a very different structure. Nesbit did a fair bit of research on Los Alamos and the women who lived there with their scientist husbands, and came up with an approach that spoke to all the women, spoke from a first person point of view, but in a group sense, and felt very personal.
Each chapter has a different theme, and is made up of short paragraphs around that theme. Within each paragraph, the voice offers different experiences in the same vein, some of them opposite to each other. These speak both to the range of backgrounds of the women, as well as the commonalities.
Living in this small community, forced to interact with each other, with only a partial understanding of what their husbands were working on, very limited access to the outside world, and assigned housing with undependable utilities, these women were creative, feisty, and good sports.
I could barely put this book down, it did such a good job of pulling me into the experience of Los Alamos.
Here are a few examples to give you a taste of the way this book is written.
From the chapter "West":
We lied and told our children we were packing because we would be spending August with their grandparents in Denver or Duluth. Or we said we did not know where we were going, which was the truth, but our children, who did not trust that adults went places without knowing where they were going, thought we were lying. Or we told them it was an adventure and they would find out when we got there.
and from the chapter "Land":
In that first week we were invited to learn how to run our clothes through the hand-cranked mangle at the community laundry. Before this, we had other people do our laundry, or we had electric wringers, and for many of us our memories of those hand-powered water extractors were of the heavy crank and our mother's warnings not to get our hair caught in it. We were still wearing high heels and they stuck in the mud and we pretended that we learned what we were taught about the mangle but instead gathered our husband's shirts in a wet bundle and carried them home, smiling sourly. We hung the clothes on the line and ironed the cotton shirts on our kitchen table. Because our clothesline was erected in one of the only spots on the mesa that was not in direct sunlight, in the morning we brought our children's cloth diapers and our husband's boxer shorts in as square little ice boards.
and from the chapter "Talk":
We were a group of people connecting both honestly and dishonestly, appearing composed at dusk and bedraggled at daybreak, committed, whether we wanted it or not, to shared conditions of need, agitation, and sometimes joy, which is to say: we were a community.
There is just something about this writing that takes the individual and group experiences of these women and makes them come alive for me. I feel their frustration, their loneliness, their anger. It opened my eyes to another historical experience, one that could never happen now due to the advances in communication, and makes you feel what it might have been like.


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