THE GREEN GLASS SEA (Book Review)

Here at 7,300 feet altitude, Los Alamos, New Mexico, looks like a resort town in the pines. To me, it’s the beautiful place where my granddaughter lives. Ravens swoop overheard or stare at you from perches, and an occasional Mountain Blue Jay rustles the dark green bristles against an even more vividly blue sky. Traffic is slow on two, parallel, main streets, and a quaint trolley serves as the “circulator” for a free shuttle system. The shuttle is important, as it is difficult and time-consuming to get from one neighborhood to another on a series of switch-back thoroughfares connecting four long mesas. These flattened hilltops sit above rugged canyons, their steep slopes tapering off at the Rio Grande, not far north of Santa Fe.

Not even Santa Fe was well-traveled in the mid-20th century. The cross-country train stopped 25 miles away, at Lamy. Who would suspect that some of its passengers would be famous scientists – or infamous, if you were against the Atomic Bomb?

In THE GREEN GLASS SEA, Dewey Kerrigan, age 11, arrives at Lamy in 1943 in the company of a new friend, Dick Feynman. She doesn’t know where she’s going, only that her dad is waiting for her in a place called The Hill.  This young readers’ novel observes the elite group of workers who are serving their country by setting aside illustrious careers at universities and laboratories to work toward a solution to war in this secret town. We aren’t allowed to know much about day-to-day activity of adults, but Ellen Klages allows us to follow their children, mainly Dewey and Suze, both awkward misfits in a society straining to maintain normality. Other girls avoid them. Dewey makes things out of spare parts, notably radios. She talks easily with grownups. Suze Gordon, who at first is aching to belong with the girly-girls, is thrown together with Dewey by chance, and discovers the Hill’s dump a perfect place to find bits and pieces to make into collage art. She finds out what really makes her happy.

The growing pains this author explores for young readers bring the mature reader close to the big questions of life and thus the moral dilemmas experienced by some of the scientists.  Suze’s mother, Terry Gordon, though a Manhattan Project “stink” (meaning “chemist”), feels discomfort with the whole enterprise, while her physicist husband is an enthusiast of the project’s accomplishments on July 16, 1945. The author’s  realistic portrayal of the smoking and drinking, the all-nighters on experiments to beat a deadline, the material sacrifices, and the loneliness yet resilience of the community’s children, are thought-provoking recollections that will make adult readers think about what they are doing with their lives.

THE GREEN GLASS SEA, published by Viking Children’s Books in 2006, won The Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, among others. Its sequel, WHITE SANDS, RED MENACE (2008) takes the girls into the Cold War era and missile race.

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