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Posts Tagged ‘nuclear weapons’

I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

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Denise Kiernan‘s book is subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII. No matter what you think of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the story of the thousands and thousands of people who came to a huge tract of muddy land in rural Tennessee to work at the Clinton Engineer Works is fascinating. I admit I did not know about Oak Ridge,  or site X, and only vaguely knew of Hanford, WA, because when we lived near Seattle the extent of radioactive contamination there was big news. But I never realized either site was part of the Manhattan Project. I knew the bomb was built and tested in New Mexico, and that was about it.

The Girls of Atomic City really illuminates the massive size of the Project, the web of protection the government wove around the work at Oak Ridge, where uranium was enriched, and the impact the Project had on ordinary lives. The women Kiernan interviewed and writes about are examples of how much independence women gained when they entered the work force in support of the war effort, and of how fleeting it was for most of them, when marriage and motherhood often meant the end of a woman’s work outside the home.

I enjoyed reading about the sociological aspects of life in a top secret community — where workers were warned that spies and informants may be afoot, and their fellow workers were drafted as “creeps,” who watched and listened for anyone spilling secrets. It is remarkable that the majority of the thousands of workers also had no idea what they were making; each knew how to do their own work and did just that little bit. Disturbingly, most didn’t even know what were working with. Only on Aug. 6, 1945, did it become apparent.

Kiernan’s structure, however, made the book less enjoyable for me. There were chapters about some of the individual women she interviewed, and chapters about the Manhattan Project and the scientists whose work made nuclear weapons possible, and these alternated. There was some chronological order, but otherwise the story jumped around. Perhaps because I did not read in long sittings but a few pages at a time, I frequently felt a little lost. Maybe this is a narrative device employed to recreate the sense of secrecy? If so it worked; personally, as a reader, I prefer more straightforward storytelling, especially for nonfiction. An interesting read, nonetheless.

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