There are no birds in The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, but there is a lot to like. As a depiction of Los Alamos during the end stage development of the atomic bomb, it does surprisingly well. None of the characters can really talk about the project openly, but there is still the sense that everyone on the base knows what’s going on, which feels true.
They were going to test the gadget. It was an open secret. No one was supposed to know anything, officially, but in private, it was all anyone had talked about for weeks.
The feminist themes of The Atomic Weight of Love are present, but in a more toned-down, background way, like in this scene where Dewey and Suze are talking about comic books.
“This one’s got a girl in it. The Black Angel. But she doesn’t really get to do much.”
“Girls never do,” Suze agreed. She flopped onto her back and sighed. “I hate girls.”
Dewey looked startled.
“Not you or me,” Suze said. “Girls.”
One element I loved was the secret club the two girls form–Shazam. Shazam was a secret, mystical word from the old Captain Marvel comics, which allowed Billy Batson to transform into Captain Marvel. The word was an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury, who, Suze points out, “were almost all Greeks,” so she prints the letters–lowercase and in Greek–on two rocks for them to carry, to remind them of their own secret powers–“Wisdom and strength,” and courage.
The book is billed as Children’s Literature, and I could see my fourth grade son reading this–as a matter of fact there were a few things I discussed with him as I read it. The novel ends with a half-heard news broadcast reporting the dropping of the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Suze’s chemist mother has already begun to realize the moral implications of the “gadget”–though the other scientists, especially her husband, are shown as being drunk on their accomplishments and not willing to think about or take responsibility for how their gadget will be used. I suspect this topic will be more important in Ellen Klages’ sequel White Sands, Red Menace, and I will be interested in how the topic is presented to an audience of children and/or young adults.
Once again, I don’t feel I got much of a sense of what New Mexico was like–the characters in The Green Glass Sea rarely leave the base, and most of the people there are transplants like themselves. (There is one exception–a Hispanic cleaning woman who teaches Suze some Spanish.)
The main impressions I have of Los Alamos from this book are of dust, interspersed with drenching thunderstorms leaving behind endless mud, and the smell of pinyon pine in the clear air. The setting is just that–a backdrop for the action.
There were, however, a couple of passages when the family visits the Trinity test site at the end of the book, that were more evocative of New Mexico scenery. On the way south from Los Alamos, Dewey reflects that “It was the first time she’d been down from the Hill since she and Papa arrived,” and there is a note that they can feel the temperature rise as they come down off the mesa.
The land was flat and endless, bounded by craggy brown mountain canyons on one side and distant dusky blue ridges on the far horizons. Close up, everything that went by the window was brown. Brown dirt, brown fences, brown tumbleweeds, brown adobe houses. But all the distances were blue. Crystal blue, huge sky that covered everything for as far as she could see until the earth curved. Far-away slate blue, hazy blue mountains and mesas, ledges of blue land stretching away from the road, blurring into the sky at the edges. Blue land. She had never seen anything like that before.
And later, she comments, “After Albuquerque, the land stayed very flat and the mountains stayed far away.”
The land was parched brown by the heat, and there were no trees, just stubby greasewood bushes and low grass, with an occasional spiky yucca or flat cactus.
I’ll be doing a post about the Trinity site itself, including the scene from the book, later on, but I’ll just say that it is fascinating, in a chilling way.
Overall, it is a good read, and one that I would encourage kids to read (though the pacing is probably a little slow for them). While I’m not sure that the New Mexico setting was a fully-realized character in the book, I did learn some important things about the history of the state (and the country/world), and that is one of the other goals I had in my book challenge, so I’ll count it as a success.