Since the premises (at least on the surface) of The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church are similar, it was interesting to read them so close together and to take note of similarities and differences between the two.
On the surface, both books have as their time/place setting Los Alamos, New Mexico during the final development of the atomic bomb. Both books do a good job of showing the shroud of secrecy that enveloped the project and the community itself, as well as some of the gaps in that secrecy.
Meridian notices that the scientists look totally out of place and quite obvious when they go into Santa Fe.
Surely the usual Santa Fe residents had to know something was going on just north of the old city, up on that mesa where Los Alamos grew overnight. The influx of people had to be obvious. Even I could spot probable Los Alamos transplants as they made their way through town on errands… The scientists even walked differently, precisely, either wholly self-conscious or lost in the clouds. … I saw them seated on benches, hungrily spooning chunks of Woolworth’s Frito pie* into their mouths.
Although the characters in The Green Glass Sea are almost never shown outside the base, Mrs. Gordon also comments on the open secret that everyone knows they are getting ready to test the gadget.
Dewey looked up … “It’s happening, isn’t it?” she asked quietly.
“Hmmmph. And they call this a top secret project.” Mrs. Gordon put her bag of groceries down on the counter. “Not inside the fence, that’s for sure. The rumor mill down at the Commissary is buzzing at a fever pitch.”
I noticed that the Santa Fe PO Box 1663 given as Alden’s return address in The Atomic Weight of Love, is the same PO Box given a couple of times in The Green Glass Sea. Apparently all mail to anyone at the Los Alamos site–hundreds, eventually thousands, of people–was sent to a single PO Box 1663 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But while The Atomic Weight of Love uses that by including a series of letters between Alden and Meridian, The Green Glass Sea takes a different approach, commenting that one of the minor characters was having trouble getting into college because the high school at Los Alamos technically did not exist–it had no name, no address, only that PO Box 1663 in Santa Fe. Both books mention the identity badges, but I don’t think either really indicates that the badges didn’t have names, only pictures, or that driver’s licenses were issued to, for example, Number 44.
On the other hand, The Atomic Weight of Love does a great job talking about the government censors in that series of letters where apparently much of the content of Meridian’s letters was excised because the censors couldn’t tell the difference between ornithology and nuclear physics and blacked out anything science-related just in case.
“You’re driving the censors crazy. You’ve got to stop talking about or asking any questions having to do with science.”
Why was it my fault that the censors couldn’t distinguish between science that might be top-secret, nuclear science, and my brand of biology? …
“Just stick to topics that get nowhere near anything that might be censored.”
“I still don’t know what those topics might be, really I don’t. I don’t know the rules, and I’m not a fortune teller, Alden.”
The Green Glass Sea also mentions the issue briefly when Suze is thinking about writing a letter but decides against it because there is not much she is allowed to say.
Once she had drawn a picture for Gramma Weiss, the view from her bedroom, the stick-your-head-out view, which had been very hard to draw. But the stupid old censor sent it back and said it wasn’t allowed. If she couldn’t talk about where she lived or anything, what was the point of writing a letter?
And Dewey’s father writes to her in code, telling her of his meeting with President Truman at the White House, “I went to see ‘Casablanca’ and visited with Uncle T. the other day,” mentioning that, “he’s just moved,” referring to his recent elevation after Roosevelt’s death.
This mention of Roosevelt’s death made me notice an odd gap in Meridian’s account–she doesn’t mention it at all. I hadn’t noticed that absence when first reading The Atomic Weight of Love, but it was a big event in The Green Glass Sea, with everyone listening to the news and crying. (Although I thought the bit about Mrs. Gordon not knowing Truman’s name was a little unrealistic, if for no other reason than that they had just been watching/listening to Edward R. Murrow and surely the new President’s name would have been mentioned.) Regardless, President Roosevelt’s death is not mentioned in The Atomic Weight of Love.
Another difference between the two books is seen in the Trinity site and the green glass sea of the second novel’s title. In The Atomic Weight of Love, it’s all a bit more removed. Meri was in Chicago that summer, working with her adviser. Alden writes her a vaguely triumphant letter the day after the test, and later he gives her the piece of Trinitite.
But in the other book, the Gordon family actually visits the green glass sea, walking across the site, observing the burnt shadows of animals, and breaking off pieces of the glass to take home as souvenirs (complete with testing them with a Geiger counter and rejecting several that tested “too hot”).
The oddest part, though, was the mention of the Malpais. Despite the fact that Meridian’s lover Clay is a geologist studying the Malpais, and even takes her to visit the lava fields there, she (and therefore we, as readers) doesn’t seem to connect the area with the Trinity site, nor does Clay the geologist.
This map, however, shows the crater and the blast range, and it also shows the lava fields Meri and Clay visit–maybe 20 miles from Ground Zero.
It is a measure of how secretive the project was–and how little communication there was between Meri and Alden–that Meri has, I think, no idea of how close they are.
Note: Actually, this was my mistake. El Malpais volcanic area, which Meri and Clay visit, actually refers to El Malpais National Monument, which is between Gallup and Albuquerque, not anywhere near the Trinity site. I’m not sure how I missed that. Meri said it was south of Los Alamos and Santa Fe, which both areas would be, and I think I just assumed when Klages mentioned lava fields that they were the same ones.
I admit that I am finding myself fascinated by this bit of history, and am wanting to take a detour to Japan for some books dealing with the devastation of Fat Man and Little Boy. I will certainly be reading Ellen Klages’ sequel to The Green Glass Sea, called White Sands, Red Menace to find out more of the story on this end as well.
And, not to be too flippant, but my taste buds are interested in trying some of that Frito pie!