The women came from all over the nation—even the world—with little or no idea why they were moving to a remote New Mexico town with only a post office box for an address. They were the wives of scientists working at a secret research laboratory to build the first atomic bomb.
The Manhattan Project is a storied chapter in American history, its products used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Less well recorded are the voices of the women who lived there in the early 1940s, raising families and struggling to build a community in the harsh climate and secretive environment of Los Alamos.
The Wives of Los Alamos is written in the first person plural (“we”), a surprisingly effective choice by Nesbit. It helps paint the picture of a generation of women who, while diverse in many ways, were still products of their time, following their husbands virtually without question.
“What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab?” Nesbit writes. “We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered types of code breaking.”
The conditions were stark: a dusty, windy, mysterious military base where food was rationed and showers were a luxury. Some families buckled under the harsh conditions. Yet Nesbit shows that the women found ways to adapt and even have fun, with morning neighborhood coffees and evening dances giving shape to their social lives.
“We felt the freedom of living in isolation,” she writes, “and so, on the weekends, fenced in as we were, we celebrated and square-danced, we let go. We often work the next morning with no water and spent the day reeking of rum, and our lungs burned from smoking so many cigarettes. We wanted what we could many times not have: coffee, a shower.”
Nesbit made use of oral histories and archival documents to detail for the first time the lives of these young women who until now were forgotten in the history books. It is a stunningly original and thought-provoking debut novel.