The Wives of Los Alamos
In March 1943, doorbells ring at the comfortable homes of academics in some American university towns. Their wives admit “a young man in a porkpie hat” who confers with their husbands privately. At the end of the meetings, their husbands announce: “We are going to the desert,” or “How’d you like to live in the Southwest?” When the wives ask for more details, their husbands mutter “I don’t know.”
Thus begins the extraordinary journey of a group of young women whose stories are presented, collectively, in this historical novel spanning 1943 to 1945. Despite coming from different cities, they share the common bond of being married to a renowned scientist. They arrive at Los Alamos full of excitement, which soon fades upon discovering their new environment, which is no better than an unsightly military camp. It isn’t just the unfinished barrack houses surrounded by a barbed wire fence that annoys them, but many other aspects, such as a PO Box address, mail censorship, the confiscation of their cameras, limited family visits, and most of all not knowing what their husbands are doing. Most of them were originally from Europe, and the Anglicization of their names takes some getting used to as well.
As the story unfolds, the novel explores the sacrifices these women make, overcoming mental and physical hardships simply for the love of their husbands and children. How they band together to resolve their problems, do their household duties, and have babies is presented vividly. Their husbands’ monumental project may not have succeeded without the cooperative effort of these dedicated wives. While some readers may find Nesbit’s first-person-plural viewpoint impersonal, it feels appropriate in unfolding this multi-cast story. The novel’s ending also deals with the characters’ wrestling with the bigger challenge posed by the use of their husbands’ project and its aftermath.