Monday, July 4, 2016

White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages

White Sands, Red Menace picks up the story of Dewey Kerrigan and Suze Gordon, post-World War II.The novel covers the span of approximately one year from May 12, 1946 to May 15, 1947.

It is May 12, 1946 and the United States has won the war in the Pacific, dropping two atomic bombs, which Dewey and Suze's parents helped to build, on cities in Japan. Casualties were in the hundreds of thousands and the public, including the scientists remain divided over the use of nuclear technology. Dewey continues to live with the Gordons who are now located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a hour from the Mexican border and only sixty miles from the Trinity test site. The novel opens with Dewey and the Gordons driving to the White Sands Proving Grounds, a flat expanse of arid desert where the US government is testing the launch of the first American rocket launched into outer space.

The American army captured three hundred boxcars full of V-2 rocket parts along with the instructions, all written in German. The German scientists who were working on the rocket, including von Braun have been brought over to America to help the country build its own rockets. Dr. Gordon tells Dewey and Suze that this is the first rocket to travel straight up into the outer atmosphere. The launch is successful.

Meanwhile Dewey and Suze continue to develop their areas of interest: Dewey with building various machines and Suze with her art creations. In their shared bedroom, the two girls work on creating a wall of artwork and mechanical pieces that they name "the Wall".  In July, Dewey receives a cheque for three thousand dollars from her grandmother, Nana Gallucci's estate, plus her jewelry and her Nana's clothing. She also finds a picture of her grandparents and her father Jimmy Kerrigan and mother, Rita Gallucci Kerrigan when they much younger.

Suze's father continues to be very involved in the development of a rocket, while her mother works from home to stop further development of nuclear weapons. A chemist, her efforts are no longer needed by the military and she desperately wants to resume her career at Berkley. Longing for a connection to her mother, it is Suze's father who takes her to the desert to see the beautiful sunset and the stars. He tells her that he's going to be out at the base again for some time, involved in launch tests.

Over the course of the next year, Suze and Dewey make new friends. In August, Suze meets a girl, Ynez Esquero, from the southern part of Alamogordo which is primarily Mexican. This part of town is known as "Little Chihuahua" and the Hispanics are not allowed to live north of Tenth. Ynez is selling tamales which Suze discovers she really likes. Suze visits Ynez's home and learns that she wants to live in Hollywood some day. Ynez's mother, Dona Luisa, teaches Suze how to make tamales.

The school year starts and Dewey who is now attending Alamogordo High, is forced to take Home Economics and to repeat Algebra instead of being allowed to enroll in the grade nine trigonometry class. Dewey and Suze are in English, Social Science and Home Ec together. When a film is to be shown in Home Ec class, a boy named Owen Parker brings in the projector but has trouble getting things running. Dewey unobtrusively helps him and later on Owen helps her by taking her to his father's repair shop to teach her how to solder. Through the school year Dewey and Suze build new friendships while their own relationship becomes more secure. And as each face startling new situations to deal with, the true meaning of family is discovered.


White Sands, Red Menace is a fitting conclusion to the story of Dewey and Suze and the beginning of the atomic age. Once again Klages does an excellent job recreating the setting for her novel - this time, life in postwar America, late 1940's.

The social and political fallout from the development of the atom bomb is shown throughout the novel. Sometimes the consequences are personal for Dewey and Suze, other times they are more indirect. For example Suze comes home one day to find her mother grieving over the death of a colleague, Lou Slotin who died from radiation sickness as a result of a plutonium accident.  Terry Gordon reveals to her daughter Suze that only the first hundred thousand casualties in Hiroshima where due to the actual bomb explosion. The rest died from radiation sickness like Slotin, which horrifies Suze. In Social Science class Suze confronts Mrs. McDonald telling her the government won't let the newspapers print the truth about Japan "because it might scare people and turn them against 'our new friend, the atom.' " When she tells the class what is really happening she is sent to the principal's office.

Klage uses a conversation between Dewey and Suze to hint at the hypocrisy of the American government in executing the remaining Nazi's at Nuremberg while not executing scientists like von Braun whose rockets killed thousands in Britain. Suze tells her, "My dad says it doesn't matter, 'cause we need 'em to teach our army how to work the controls and stuff." When the Gordons have one of von Braun's crew, Rudy Mueller and his son Kurt over for Thanksgiving Kurt tells Suze, Dewey and Owen how the Germans were able to use many "workers" to make so many rockets at Nordhausen.  Suze realizes that Kurt is referring to THE Nordhausen where the U.S. troops discovered the bodies of 3,000 slave laborers and where 20,000 slaves died making rocket parts. Suze realizes that if she knows, likely her dad and the other government scientists know too.

There's plenty of cultural references throughout the novel. For example, Dewey and Suze go to the theatre to see Tarzan and the Leopard Woman which starred Johnny Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce. The theatre also shows Spider Woman Strikes Back and the previews show the atomic bomb test at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific and Chapter Nine of Captain Midnight. In 1946 New Mexico, black children are not allowed to attend Alamogordo High and attain only a grade eight education. Obviously this will affect the types of employment available to black men and women. When Owen comes to visit Dewey he tells her about seeing a television in El Paso, Texas. In 1946 a ten inch television cost four hundred dollars. At this time there was no television station in El Paso but one in Los Angeles. He's certain that soon televisions will soon be sold.

The years immediately following the atomic bombing of Japan saw many products in the US marketed as "atomic" suggesting they had special abilities. Suze had expected her parents and the other scientists would be heroes for ending the war in the Pacific through the use of the atom bomb. However, when the world saw the damage done by the bombs, there were no celebrations, but America could not admit this. It would be unpatriotic. So Suze believes that instead American businesses try to minimize the harm of atomic technology by marketing it as beneficial to society.  "Songs, ads, comic -- everything was 'atomic' now, like just using the word would make stuff special? Atomic-like action! Who in their right mind wanted a cleanser that worked like the Bomb? It would blow up your sink, your kitchen, turn your whole neighborhood into ashes and rubble and radiation. Some way to clean."

Readers will get a good sense of the social norms of the post war era in which women had to conform to certain expectations. During the war, women worked in factories while men were overseas fighting but with the end of the war, society returns to the traditional roles expected of men and women. Men are to learn mechanical skills like welding and woodworking while women are expected to learn domestic skills like cooking and hygiene. Klage uses the character of Dewey who is different from most girls her age to show how difficult it was to fight the social norms of the times. Dewey will be in grade eight and wants to take shop but is told, "Oh no. Those are boys' classes." Instead she is forced to enroll in Home Economics. In fact Dewey is not even allowed to go into that part of the school only because she is a girl. She worries that not taking shop will affect her chance of attending MIT for engineering.

Klages portrayal of the relationship between Dewey and Suze is very realistic. The Gordon's have taken in Dewey when her father died. Dewey and Terry Gordon form a bond based on their love of science and the fact that they think in a similar way. This aspect of their relationship causes Suze to feel left out and jealous. Dewey seems to recognize this and tries to help Suze. When the girls have a fight over Dewey going to practice driving with Suze's mother, Suze finally admits to her friend, "I fee like an orphan. Dad's off with his rockets, and Mom's always busy." The fight leads Suze to talk to her mom about how she's feeling and her mother tells her,
 " 'I'm glad. Because I do love Dewey. As much as if she was your real sis--sibling. But that doesn't mean I love you any less. You know that, don't you?
'I guess so.'
'Oh, that was convincing.' She turned in her chair so they sat knee to knee. 'You're my daughter, no matter what. Always will be.
'Even though I don't like science much,' Suze said in a small voice. 'You're not disappointed I'm not more like you?' She paused, 'And Dewey.' "
Suze's mom reassures her of her love and tells Suze that she's more like her mom than she suspects. She shows Suze a picture of her and her friends, how she was tall like Suze at the same age and just as curious.

Dewey herself must also come to terms with the relationship between herself and her mother, who reappears in her life later in the novel. She learns the truth about her parents and why her mother left and she must make the difficult decision about what part her mother will play in her own life. In this regard Dewey is presented as a very mature fourteen year old who knows what her goals are and who is determined to achieve them. With the help of her best friend Suze, Dewey takes the unusual step of taking control of her own destiny.

There are a few historical facts peppered throughout the novel. For example Louis Slotin was a real historical figure, a Canadian physicist who worked to assemble the nuclear core of the Trinity bomb. Slotin died from a massive dose of neutron radiation when he accidentally caused a critical reaction to occur. The type of testing Slotin was involved in was called criticality testing and was considered very dangerous. Another historical fact is the McMahon Act which placed atomic research in the hands of the scientists removing it from military control.

White Sands, Red Menace is a fascinating read about the period of history just prior to the start of the Cold War. Klages offers a detailed Author's Note at the back which provides some further information and resources on the 1940's, the V-2 Rocket Program and the Atomic Bomb. Fans of historical fiction will really enjoy this novel about a little known era of American history.

Book Details:

White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages
New York: Viking Press       2008
337 pp.

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