Dewey Kerrigan, raised by her grandmother until she has a stroke and goes into a nursing home, is sent to live with her father is New Mexico. Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943: the place where chemists, physicists, and other scientists are working on creating the atomic bomb. All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and Dewey herself knows nothing of it. Her life is concerned with smaller things: having conversations with Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, bonding with a loving but overworked father, working on projects with scrap metal and electronics. Then her father is sent away, to Washington, and Dewey is left with family friends and their daughter Suze. Deeply awkward around each other at first, Suze and Dewey slowly form a friendship.
Klages really gets what it’s like growing up as a nerd girl: the way adults can be easier to talk to than people your own age, the way one’s projects can be so fascinating that you don’t even care (that much…) when you’re unpopular, how Popular Mechanics is the most exciting magazine in existence, how great it is when you can share obscure knowledge with a friend like a secret code. I don’t know if I really believe the ending–it has one of those Big Misunderstandings I’m thoroughly sick of–but it’s such a warm and knowing picture of friendship and growing up, with the historical information woven in unobtrusively.
I think I like the book’s approach to the atomic bomb best of all. It’s not foregrounded at all. It’s top secret, and up until almost the end of the book, you only get vague rumors of a gadget that could end the war. But when it does show up, Klages doesn’t spend a lot of time arguing for and agaist the use of the atomic bomb. Dewey certainly doesn’t get to decide that. The scientists working on the bomb can argue about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but ultimately, it’s out of their hands. Instead, Klage approaches it from three different perspectives–there’s the scientific perspective, and given Dewey’s fascination with science and engineering throughout the book, it’s easy to get caught up in this idea of– Wow! Science did this! And then there’s the political perspective, pro-ending the war as quickly as possible, with as little loss of (American) life as possible. Dewey is a child of her time, casual about using slurs against the Japanese. And finally, you just have to be floored with fear and trembling at the idea that human beings can obliterate each other on such a massive scale. The last chapter is wonderful when it comes to bringing all of these things together without hitting you over the head with them.