Love in the time of security state – “The Green Glass Sea” by Ellen Klages

the-green-glass-sea

[CN: Anti-Japanese racism, jingoism, the atrocious bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki]

Dewey Kerrigan is waiting on the front steps of her nana’s house for her pop, expected to return from Chicago. But he does not show up. An army vehicle comes instead, and they announce that Dewey will be taking a train southwest to New Mexico. Because Dewey must spend the next four years of her life isolated in a public housing/working complex that is on no map and is top secret. Because her pop is a physicist working on the Manhattan Project.

I can’t discuss this novel the way I want to without spoiling it. I had some objections, but all in all this is a tender and redeeming narrative charged with details in all the right ways. It fits in a pattern I’ve experienced since grade school — that of historical novels for young people being a rare and valuable chance for young USians to engage with history presented without the agenda of turning children into soldiers.

Spoilers below!

So in Los Alamos, Dewey is content, for the most part. Her father is affectionate and patient; they both share a love of machinery and math. She likes to reclaim discarded bolts, screws, and other parts from the dump to design her “gizmos”, and is very introverted. The other kids call her “Screwy Dewey.”

Suze Gordon is another young girl who does not fit into the models of existence offered to her. She’s a big kid and tomboyish. Dewey relishes living among so many scientists (she has encounters with Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi). It’s probably not unlike the wealth of knowledge available to those trapped in the bodies of Lovecraft’s Yith in their library/compound. But Suze is cooped up and frustrated. When we first meet her she decides to sneak through an off-limits jeep parking lot, testing the limits of her containment while trying to win the attention of the popular girls. (We know these characters are white because only a white girl could sprint away from an MP and live).

These are very familiar narrative patterns: fish out of water youths who build a friendship that is more authentic than the society which doesn’t accept them. It’s tempting to think that the setting of Los Alamos in mostly the early months and summer of 1945 is just period window dressing; an excuse to swamp ourselves in Americana — comic books, Coke bottles, ham radios, and tons of Chesterfield cigarettes. And that is a valid complaint for a great deal of historical fiction (specifically from Hollywood) which does little else than transplant modern white hegemony into colorful sets and costumes, effectively de-politicizing both the past and the present. So us with white privilege can see our people wearing bodices and riding around in carriages, recognizing our family structures and desires for mass attention and monetized success, cuz we’re all free go-getting individuals having fun with our sidekicks of color and maybe learning an occasional lesson to be nice to avoid facing anti-white racism (i.e. being called a racist). But anyway–

The details matter in GGS. They matter because we are rooted in the subjectivities of 11 year old girls who are dealing with their loneliness and the incomprehensible behavior of the grownups who rule them. The titanic issues of warfare and national consciousness don’t register that much on their radar — they certainly didn’t when I was 11. But that’s okay because things slip through the cracks. Take for example how the only black man Dewey meets is a porter on the way from the train station to Los Alamos, or the people who clean the apartments and facilities are Latin@ women bussed from the city.

It’s frustrating because we want the characters to think about the implications of the Bomb (they call it “the gadget”), but that would require talking about it. This is a novel about living and loving in the time of secrets; when secrecy is our patriotic duty.

So it’s interesting that we spend most of the narrative with Dewey and Suze (who is forced to share her room with Dewey as her father goes to Washington, also a familiar beat) and the everydayness of recess, reading, tree-climbing, art projects. One of the most tender scenes is this exchange before bedtime:

“What’s your bear’s name?” Dewey asked. She handed it back across the gap between the beds.

There was a small pause, and then Suze said, “Maxwell.”

Dewey immediately thought of James Maxwell, who formulated the first equations about electromagnetic fields. But she doubted Suze knew about him. Mayby after Maxwell House coffee. Or maybe she just had an uncle Maxwell who’d given her the bear. She–

“Because of the scientist guy, Maxwell,” Suze said.

Dewey just about fell out of bed.

“See, my mom’s a chem — a stinker — you know,” Suze continued. “His name used to be Fuzzy, when I was little. But Mom used to laugh and say, ‘Maxwell was right, opposites do attract’ — I guess ’cause he’s a dark brown bear, and I’ve got blonde hair — and she and Daddy started calling him Maxwell. It’s really a more interesting name than Fuzzy, if you think about it. Mom’s big on giving things science names. Our cat is Rutherford, and even my–”

Suze stopped abrubtly in mid-sentence, and Dewey heard her make a funny noise with her mouth, like she was trying hard to think and stop herself from talking at the same time.

Dewey waited.

“If I tell you something, will you promise never to tell anyone else?” Suze asked slowly.

Suze’s face was just a sort of pale blur under paler blonde hair, but even without her glasses on, Dewey could tell that Suze was very serious. “Yeah, I promise,” she said after a moment’s hesitation, during which curiosity won out over anything else.

“Scout’s honor?”

“I’m not a Girl Scout,” Dewey said. “So I don’t know if it would count. But pinky swear. That’s what my Nana did if something was real secret.” She held up her right hand, pinky extended, and kissed its fingertip. “Pinky swear I won’t tell.”

“Okay.” Suze took a deept breath. “I was sort of named after my mom’s favorite scientist, Marie Curie.” (175-76)

Dewey goes on to reveal her real name given by her father, which is outrageously nerdy. What I’m getting at is that it’s disclosure that strengthens relationships in this story. An early scene depicts the one interaction we see between Suze and her father. He teaches her some Greek letters and what they represent in mathematics:

She could tell by her father’s voice that he thought this pie thing was really interesting and exciting. A Greek letter that was also a long number that was really a circle. Maybe it was like a secret science code. But she liked that he was sharing it with her. (83)

But these redeeming moments are enveloped in a larger drama that centers around Dewey Kerrigan. See, Dewey loves science, and she is immensely proud of her dad who is taking part in a feat of bleeding edge technology. She is totally at home within the dominant framework of scientific positivism and rationality which also proliferates the dominant conception of linear history. This is reinforced by the text, which includes a date with most of the chapter headings. As we read we are counting down to July 16, and then to August 6. Our historical experience is an inevitable and unchanging ticking to zero.

When Dewey is on the train the very beginning of the text, she sleeps to the “steady, soothing chukka-chukka-chukka sound” of the wheels (14). And again in her new house in Los Alamos (which is visibly less prosperous than Suze’s family’s household) she falls asleep “to the slow, steady tick-tock, tick-tock of the mechanical clock that seemed to echo in the empty house” (114). The rhythmic sounds and movements of machinery as we hurtle on the track to our destiny — these are the conditions for Dewey’s life.

And that’s why I thought it was necessary that Dewey’s father is killed while working for the government in Munich. It seems like it’s too much: Dewey is a sweet kid whose mother abused her then left, so being suddenly orphaned may come off as more than a little melodramatic. Her father is all she has, and her relationship to her father is what’s at stake in a grander sense as she stands on the cusp of the atomic age. (After all, father is at the etymological root of patriotism as well as  patriarchy. A love and duty to one’s county is a love to the land of our fathers and their imperialist values. This is why patriotism is a dirty, dirty word and I can think of few things more rude and inhumane than being patriotic).

And Dewey’s individual suffering is about to be magnified to the arranged burning-to-death of a quarter million people, Japanese, Korean, British, American — a suffering too huge and abstract for us to dredge up any sympathy.

While Jim Kerrigan is alive he also screws with the system a bit for the sake of honesty with his daughter. He fills his letters with codewords and clues that get past the army censors. And in an interesting scene he takes Dewey out to the caves of the Anasazi to talk about his anxieties regarding the race to The Bomb. Dewey listens in the space of a people who “disappeared.” The dots are in place, all a young reader needs to do is draw the lines.

Nothing calls attention to itself, but there is always room to ask questions, for example regarding Suze’s and other characters’ casual racism when they say things like “Now we’ll have the Japs on toast!” (The internment of Japanese citizens by the US is never mentioned).

The Green Glass Sea is an anti-spectacle of history. Suze reflects that life on the Hill “seemed less real here, like a story she’d seen in a movie. There were soldiers everywhere, but they weren’t fighting or going off to die. No one’s father was gone, nobody had a blue star hanging in their window” (81). There’s no spectacle, that is, until we see the Trinity bomb test at a large distance. To the girls, the reality-tearing explosion and the super-heated green glassy mineral left in its wake are a surreal wonderment.

And that’s where the novel leaves us. We see the flash, but the story stops before “the long, low rumble, like distant, alien thunder” (277).

But that’s okay because the germs have been placed for any reader young or old to rethink technology and science in the light of our relationships with one another, and the relations imposed on us by the nation state, by capitalism etc. Maybe kids miss the bigger perspective, but they see what’s in front of them in a different way. And a different perspective is what we could use right about now.

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