The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages: A-

From the back cover:
It is 1943, and while war consumes the United States and the world, eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan lives with her father in a town that—officially—doesn’t exist: Los Alamos, New Mexico. Famous scientists and mathematicians, including Dewey’s father, work around the clock on a secret project everyone there calls only “the gadget.” Meanwhile, Dewey works on her own mechanical projects, and locks horns with Suze Gordon, a budding artist who is as much of a misfit as she is. None of them—not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey and Suze—knows how much “the gadget” is about to change their lives…

Eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is used to being apart from her father. She’s been living in St. Louis with her grandmother while he’s off doing “war work,” but a sudden stroke renders Nana unable to care for Dewey any longer. With the whereabouts of her absentee mother unknown, Dewey is packed up and sent halfway across the country to the officially nonexistent town of Los Alamos, New Mexico where her father is a physicist working on what the residents of “the hill” refer to only as “the gadget” but which is actually the atomic bomb.

Dewey isn’t like ordinary girls. She’s fascinated by science, especially radios and other mechanical gizmos, and doesn’t make any attempts to fit in. Still, she’s got a lot of independence on the hill and there are many adults nearby to answer her questions and help with her various projects, so she’s reasonably happy, if a little lonely, what with Papa spending most of his time in his lab.

Her classmate, Suze Gordon, isn’t like ordinary girls, either, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to get them to like her. Unfortunately, like most awkward preteens in this position (and, believe me, Suze’s efforts conjured up some depressing sixth-grade memories of my own!), Suze’s attempts to fit in never work out. For a significant portion of the book she’s not very likable, and mounts a sullen resistance when, a little over a year after Dewey’s arrival on “the hill,” Dewey’s dad travels to Washington and leaves his daughter in the care of his friends, the Gordons.

Friendship does not automatically ensue between the two girls, but after Suze undertakes one last attempt to be cool—victimizing Dewey in the process—President Roosevelt dies and suddenly she realizes how shameful her behavior has been. Slowly, the girls bond and at this point the book finally becomes so good I wished for it to be quite a bit longer! The girls are delighted to finally have someone with whom they can share ideas on their projects—scientific ones for Dewey and artistic ones for Suze—and love of geeky pursuits. I hadn’t realized how hard it was to be a girl geek in the ’40s! Inevitably, the popular girls get wind of their friendship, and Suze is placed in a position where she must make a choice and makes the right one without a second’s hesitation.

Alas, all good things must end. Suze’s mother, normally so adept at being a good maternal figure in Dewey’s life, completely and utterly fails to realize when Dewey’s upset about something quite significant, leading to a particularly ridiculous bout of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Her sudden doubts about the morality of “the gadget” are also perplexing; has she not been working on this for years? (Update: See comments below.)

In the end, I enjoyed The Green Glass Sea quite a lot. I liked Dewey all along (though I was less keen on the bizarre shifts in verb tense the narrative underwent when switching to her perspective) and warmed up to Suze eventually. I was immensely glad to learn there’s a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, and shall be reading it soon!


10 thoughts on “The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages: A-”

  1. I think that the sudden doubts about ‘the gadget’ are actually completely realistic.

    A lot of the scientists involved were very excited by the puzzle, the challenge, the fun of working with so many intelligent colleagues. It wasn’t until they got close to the end and especially after the test that the reality of what they’d done really hit home.

    Oppenheimer, for instance, became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons and eventually got hauled up by the House Un-American Activities Committee and had his security clearance revoked.

  2. In the beginning, it was more consistent, then it seemed to go away for a long time. When it came back at the end, it was especially noticeable and irksome.

    I didn’t know all of that about Oppenheimer. Now you make me want to edit the review. :)

  3. I think probably most of them were kind of caught up in the moment and didn’t really think too hard about what it meant. From what I’ve read, quite a few people had qualms about what they’d done after the fact. Einstein springs to mind.

  4. The verb tense was absolutely deliberate. And was used in a very specific way.

    Maybe I should’ve reread it so I could be less vague. I don’t actually remember! It had something to do with something!

  5. Oh, definitely. It was only used with Dewey, I’m pretty sure. But it seemed like in the middle there weren’t any oddities, but maybe that’s because the girls were together and it was more for when Dewey was alone.

  6. The verb tense was deliberate on my part. I start in present tense, because I want the events tomunfold for the reader in the same way they are unfolding for Dewey. There is an implied comfort in past tense — this has already happened, and so *someone* knows how it all comes out.

    I returned to present tense later in the book to give the reader that same feeling — this is happening now, and moment by moment — during very emotional, private moments for Dewey.

    — Ellen

  7. Thanks for the comment and the clarification! And you’re absolutely right about the “implied comfort” in past tense. I have felt this before, but been unable to articulate it.

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