Monday, June 20, 2016

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

"Well, there was a quote I couldn't quite recall, and I just found it.Listen." He began to read, very slowly. 'Music is the hidden arithmetic of the soul, which does not know that it deals with numbers. Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.' That's exactly what I was talking about."

Jimmy Kerrigan to his daughter Dewey as they eat lunch together, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The Green Glass Sea is a story of family, friendship and loss during World War II. The lives of two girls, Susan Gordon and Dewey Marie Kerrigan intersect as their families are brought to Los Alamos in this narrative about the Manhattan Project and the American effort to develop the atom bomb.

The story begins in 1943 with ten year old Dewey Kerrigan being picked up on the steps of her neighbour, Mrs. Kovack's house in St. Louis. Dewey had been living with her nana but she had a stroke and had to go into the hospital. Her father is in Chicago helping with the war effort and Dewey hasn't seen him since the Fourth of July.

Dewey is picked up by friendly Corporal Margaret Beckwith who tells her that her father is no longer in Chicago but at a location in New Mexico so secret that even she doesn't know. She is placed on a train to Lamy, New Mexico and a porter is assigned to care for her. On the train, Dewey discovers there is an observation car and she takes her magazine, Boy Mechanic, and her radio set to the car to tinker with.

In the observation car Dewey meets a young man, who looks like a bum but who knows about radios. Coincidentally, the man who gives his name as Dick Feynman is also traveling to Lamy, New Mexico and he knows Dewey's father Jimmy Kerrigan. Dick tells Dewey that they will be living at a place called the Hill. When they arrive in Lamy, Dick waits with Dewey until she is picked up by Sergeant Prager who takes her to get a pass to the Hill from Dorothy McKibbin. Finally Dewey is reunited with her beloved papa who drives her to their home in Los Alamos. Her father has been sent to Los Alamos to work on creating a special "gadget" that will win the war for the Americans.

The story then jumps to August of 1944. Susan (Suze) Gordon is playing cards with her mom in their house. Suze and her mother and father, who were both professors at Berkeley arrived on the Hill in the fall of 1943. Suze's father is a metallurgist, her mother a chemist. Although eleven year old Suze wants to be friends with girls like Judy, Barbara, Betty and Joyce, she finds herself unable to break into their clique. In an attempt to win their approval, Suze tells the girls that she knows a shortcut to the Tech PX so they can get cokes.

Meanwhile Dewey who has finished a picnic lunch with her papa, decides to go to the dump for parts for her latest project. At the dump she meets her friend Charlie and his little brother Jack. Dewey is in Charlie's eighth grade math class. The boys are there looking for wood for their secret treehouse while Dewey finds copper tubing and a broken typewriter. The three help each other with their cumbersome load of "finds" and make their way back.  On their way they encounter Suze and the girls she is with. When Suze sees Dewey she ridicules her by calling her "screwy Dewey". Instead of playing with the other kids, Dewey is always working on her radio or some other project at recess. Suze's bullying of Dewey doesn't have the result she expects, as Charlie defends Dewey and even offers to buy her a coke.

A few days later, Suze's mother Terry takes her to visit a friend in another part of the Hill called Morganville. That friend turns out to be Jimmy Kerrigan, Dewey's father. When Suze realizes this she is not friendly towards "screwy Dewey".

The story then moves to March 24, 1945 with Dewey's father telling her he has to meet with General Groves and his committee who have arrived from Washington. After he leaves Dewey is visited by Suze's mother, Terry Gordon who is looking for her father and becomes interested in Dewey's "time machine". On Sunday Dewey and her father have a picnic in Bandelier National Monument. Dewey notes that her father seems very sad and troubled. During their time together he tells her that before the war he worked with a German mathematician, Josef who lived in Berlin. Before the war they "were trying to understand how the world works, and borders didn't matter. But they do now."  Now Josef and Dewey's father are in a race to solve the same problems.The General has asked Dewey's father to help them understand papers published by German scientists and this means he has to go to Washington. Terry Gordon offers to take in Dewey for the time Jimmy is away but Suze is not happy with this. When she expresses her displeasure at "Screwy Dewey" coming to live with them, Suze's mom becomes angry and tells her never to use that name again and to

Moving in with the Gordons turns out to be the least of the many challenges Dewey will face as the war moves towards its devastating conclusion.


This was a fascinating look into life for a very specific group of people during World War II: the children of the scientists who worked on creating the first atomic weapon. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan which resulted in the nation's surrender and the end to war in the Pacific were the first weapons of mass destruction ever used. The Green Glass Sea portrays the scientists who worked to develop the atom bomb and their families as highly intelligent people who were determined to help their country win the war in Europe and the Pacific.  The scientists were the top researchers in their fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and metallurgy. Their family circumstances were similar to those of most Americans and their children had the same problems all children face growing up.

The two main characters in the novel are two girls who do not like one another but who eventually are drawn together to form a bond of friendship. Dewey and Suze are very different yet they face a common struggle to fit in and be accepted. Dewey is brilliant and interested in creating machines. But her intelligence is not the only thing that sets her apart from the other children at the Hill: she has one leg shorter than the other requiring her to wear a special shoe and she wears very thick glasses. Suze is also highly intelligent but in a different way than Dewey: she is very artistic. Like Dewey Suze's physical appearance sets her apart from others: she is big and strong. But while Dewey is quiet and thoughtful, Suze is loud, unkind and a bully. Dewey doesn't care about fitting in but to Suze, fitting in is so important that she is willing to make fun of Dewey in the hopes the other girls on the Hill will include her.  When the two girls are thrown together when Dewey comes to live with Suze's family, Suze is determined not to welcome her in any way - she doesn't want Dewey to have the top drawers of the dresser, she draws a line across the room dividing their space in two and marks the days off the calendar that Dewey is at her house.

Dewey takes it all in stride; she feels sorry for Suze because the other girls never ask her to play. Over the span of the following two months Suze's view of Dewey undergoes a radical change.  After the death of President Roosevelt, Suze begins to warm to Dewey, apologizing for damaging her cigar box and the two girls share secrets about their names. When Dewey struggles to find the right pieces for her gadget, Suze decides to help her and in the process discovers that she can make works of art from the nuts, bolts, screws and other metal pieces Dewey has collected. Suze introduces Dewey to superhero comic books. But it is a trip to the dump to look for a drawer to hold Suze's next collage that cements their friendship. When the two girls are confronted and bullied by Barbara and Joyce they both stand up for the other. And when Dewey is orphaned Suze shows deep concern for Dewey and is determined that she continue to live with them. "If anyone had told her two months ago that she'd be asking to let Dewey stay with her, she's have told them they were nuts. But it felt right."  The two eventually form their own club, naming it Shazam.

As they get to know each other, Suze's view of Dewey changes. She recognizes that she is different just as Dewey is different but while Dewey seems comfortable with herself, Suze is not. Dewey teaches Suze to accept herself as she is. Suze realizes that she can be herself with Dewey who accepts Suze as she is. "She'd never had a conversation like this with another kid. She didn't feel like she had to be funny, or try to show Dewey how smart she was..."

Historical fiction succeeds if it instills in readers an reasonably accurate understanding of the time being portrayed. Many scientists working on the Manhattan project did not know exactly what they were working to create. Because the project was so secret, only a small group of scientists knew what they were working towards. Once the testing of the bomb was successful and the immensity of its power was realized, many of the scientists who had worked on the bomb were strongly opposed to it being used.  Klages succeeds in realistically portraying this opposition in her novel.  Dewey's father appears to recognize how powerful the "gadget" they are attempting to build will be and for that reason he hopes the Germans have not progressed as far as the American scientists.

 After the test at Trinity, and realizing the immense power of the bomb, Terry Gordon expresses serious reservations to her husband, Dick Feynman and Dr. Teller about what they have done and the possibility of using the bomb on civilians. Dewey overhears their conversation:
"She heard Dick Feynman talking, and stopped in the doorway to listen. 'Well, yes. We started for a good reason, and we've been working so hard. It was pleasure. It was excitement,' he said. 'But you stop thinking about -- you know? You just stop. And now..."
And now that we've seen what it can do. My god,' Terry Gordon said, her voice raised, sounding angry. 'They can't use it. Not on civilians. Not on anyone, for that matter. I mean, maybe as a demonstration, but--'
'That's not realistic, Terry,' said Dr. Teller in his Hungarian accent. 'It's no longer an experiment to be demonstrated. It's a weapon, to end this terrible war once and for all.'
'At what cost, Edward? At what cost? Look, Chicago's drafted a petition. If enough of us sign it, they'll have to listen, and --'

Readers learn via a short radio clip what the American government eventually decided to do and today we know that two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Klages states in the back of her novel that she chose not to focus on the bombing of the two cities because the massive loss of life resulting from the atomic bombs is very hard to comprehend and beyond portrayal. She notes that readers experience the difficulty Dewey has with coming to terms with the death of one person - her father. However, the atomic bombs killed approximately 140,000 people in the initial blast with many tens of thousands dying of burns and radiation sickness in the weeks and months that followed. Death on such a scale in incomprehensible.

The title of the novel is a reference to green glass found after the Trinity atom bomb test on July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Temperatures generated from an atom bomb explosion were so high that the sand at the Trinity test site was metamorphosed into a new rock called trinitite. Trinitite has a green colour and most of it is mildly radioactive.

The Green Glass Sea is an excellent work of historical fiction about a unique period in history. Few novels have been written for young people about the Manhattan Project and Klages has done an excellent job in making this time come alive for young readers.

Klages wrote a sequel to this novel,  White Sands, Red Menace which continues the story of Dewey and Suze in the Cold War era.

For information on the Los Alamos site, check out this webpage at Atomic Heritage Foundation.

The US History website has a page devoted to the Manhattan Project.

An article from Spartacus Educational on the ethics of dropping the atom bombs on Japan.

This video shows three different newsreels of the Trinity bomb test which happened in The Green Glass Sea.

The second video is from the 2005 PBS Special, Dr. Teller's Very Large Bomb.

Book Details:

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
New York: Puffin Books     2006
318 pp.

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