Universe of Two

Written by Stephen P. Kiernan
Review by Jessica Brockmole

When the U.S. enters WWII, nineteen-year-old Brenda Dubie puts her dreams of studying the organ at a conservatory on hold. She spends her days working in her family’s Chicago music shop and her nights flirting and dancing with passing soldiers. But the shy, young mathematician who enters the shop one day is different. Charlie Fish is smart, funny, and appreciative of the toccatas and fugues that she plays. When Charlie is sent to New Mexico to do mysterious war work, Brenda follows. She doesn’t know what Charlie does all day in Los Alamos, but she sees how his work weighs on him. He’s building a detonation device for a new weapon that promises to end the war, a secret he must keep from her on pain of treason. As those around him welcome this new weapon, Charlie—nicknamed “Trigger” by the other guys—dreads it. As the war and the work in Los Alamos move towards the same endpoint, Charlie wonders what the cost of such a weapon will be, both for its targets and for those who unwillingly built it.

Stephen P. Kiernan writes with heart and humor. Both Brenda and Charlie are flawed and interesting, dealing with the disruptions of young love and uncertain war. Kiernan manages to balance serious historical questions and ethical issues with lively characters, sharp dialogue, and marvelous historical detail. The character of Charlie Fish is loosely based on the real Charles Fisk, who worked on the detonation team at Los Alamos and later established an organ company. Kiernan uses the outline of Fisk’s story to ask his own questions about personal and national responsibility and explore conflicting attitudes among those who built the atomic bombs. A great read.