I haven't quite figured out my obsession with historical wives. While I reassure myself that my interest is purely historical, I suspect that somewhere underneath all of that is a need to connect with these women of a bygone age, finding our commonalities while simultaneously assuring myself of the advantages I must surely now enjoy in this following century. I should, after all, be able to experience a small amount of smugness with societal progress, right? After all, for these women the pinnacle of success was ensuring a nice pot roast on the table and presentable children by the time their all-conquering husbands returned from making history. It was their husbands who defined them. I'd like to wallow in pretend conversations with these women, telling them about my working day before preparing dinner for my family. You know, the one where I captained a $30 million jet airliner across the country and back.
Yet if I'm perfectly honest with my feminist self, it really goes much deeper than that. I reach for these books yearning to find something in these women that proves that they really are me, simply constrained by the era. Deep down, I want less to gloat than I do to find that spark inside of them and mourn the circumstances that doused it in sewing circles, bridge clubs, and above all, adoring and unquestioned support of a spouse whose glory simply reflected well on their wives.
There is one very important difference between Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club and Nesbit's new release The Wives of Los Alamos: one is non-fiction and one is fiction. And as it turns out, that made all the reading difference.
The Astronaut Wives Club made nearly every Best Non-Fiction list of 2013. Here Koppel makes a concerted effort to examine the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Project wives, these women who were married to the first American men to orbit the Earth, walk in space, and finally reach the moon.
The scope of Koppel's work here started off small and manageable with the selection of Mercury's astronauts (1959-1963). She does a fine job providing fascinating detail into each of the original seven astronaut's wives. Their childhoods, marriages and the initial days of Mercury are well documented and Koppel does a fine job defining each wife with her own unique personality.
As the book progresses and the U.S. Space Program goes on to incorporate more astronauts into the Gemini and Apollo Projects, however, Koppel quickly becomes overwhelmed and the unique voices of the wives are lost in a sea of multitudes. What began with distinct women melts into muddles of generalities. I lost interest and found myself desperately wishing the story had simply remained with the original seven Mercury wives. I didn't want generalities - I wanted their stories.
Ultimately the book was an admirable effort but left me wanting so much more. And were it not for this void I might never have picked up TaraShea Nesbit's new novel, The Wives of Los Alamos. Although Nesbit's work is fiction, I knew it drew from a plethora of primary source material on the scientists and their families who were secretly whisked away during WWII to a top-secret location in New Mexico to work on creating the most destructive weapon the world had ever known.
By using fiction, Nesbit was able to use the primary source material to infer what I was most looking for: what these wives were thinking and feeling. She did so using a most unusual technique: first person plural point of view.
"And later, as we got to know one another better, as we became bored, as we continued to dislike ourselves, or as we became frustrated with being stuck in this town for so long, or we could no longer hold in the secrets we did know, we said the obviously not nice."
This point of view, used throughout an entire novel, takes some getting used to. But here's the important thing: it's not a gimmick. It is very important to understanding the novel's theme, that these very different women from very different backgrounds were brought to Los Alamos and forced to become the same anonymous wife. This is key. And Nesbit captures it beautifully.
The incredibly secrecy surrounding the Manhatten Project is largely forgotten today. But these families were completely uprooted, transported to Los Alamos and were unable to tell their extended family, friends, their entire lifetime support system where they were going, how long they would be there, or why they were even gone. Once there, they lived under an intense veil of secrecy - many of their names were even changed - while simultaneously being thrown together with other wives in the closest of physical living conditions. It was a dichotomy that took the severest of psychological tolls and proved that these women were as strong and intelligent and resourceful as their husbands.
Title: The Astronaut Wives Club
Author: Lily Koppel
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Date: June 2013
Title: The Wives of Los Alamos
Author: TaraShea Nesbit
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Date: February 2014