Monday, August 18, 2008

The Green Glass Sea

2007. Klages, Ellen. The green glass sea. New York: Puffin.

The source of the title for Ellen Klages' book, The Green Glass Sea, is a mystery to the end. So too, is everything about life on "The Hill," to the story's protagonist, 11-year-old Dewey Kerrigan. Since her mother's disappearance, Dewey has been living with her Nana while her father works in Boston. When Nana suffers a stroke and has to enter a Home, an Army car comes to pick up Dewey. She is surprised, not only because her father has not come for her himself, but also because her destination is not Boston, but New Mexico. There, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, she finds that her father and many of the world's brightest scientists are at work on a top-secret "gadget" to help end the war. Officially, their neighborhood, called "The Hill," their town, and even they themselves, do not exist in this mysterious desert community. They are allowed no phones or regular communication with the outside world.

The four girls walked down the middle of the road, with Betty and Joyce a little behind, giggling to each other. They headed south, the pine-studded canyon far over on their right. The road didn't have a name, none of them did. Suze thought this made it really hard to give anyone directions, but the army didn't want people knowing much about the Hill. Even if you lived there.

Dewey, a bright and inquisitive inventor herself, loves this strange new life. She has her father all to herself and hours of time to spend on her inventions. The only thing she does not like is the treatment that she receives at the hands of the other scientists' children, who call her Screwy Dewey and mock her handicap - a leg, shortened by an injury. Another young girl, Suze, becomes an unlikely friend due to circumstances beyond either of their control.

Suze and Dewey's life, and life itself, are about to change as two cataclysmic events unfold - the successful test of the atomic bomb and Dewey's own personal tragedy.

The Green Glass Sea, winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction, is the story of what life was like for scientists and their families working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. In addition to the story of the young girls, Dewey and Suze, and their families, The Green Glass Sea poses the age-old questions of scientific ethics and "greater good, " as in this exchange between two of the scientists:

"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."

This is moving and slowly paced novel - giving the reader time to absorb the hot New Mexico summer, the single-mindedness of the pursuit, the dreary and secretive life on "the Hill," and the enormity of the "gadget's" importance. The book is told alternately from the viewpoints of Dewey and her new friend, Suze, and contains supplementary information from and an interview with the author, Ellen Klages. The book's only distraction was the author's peculiar choice to write one chapter in a present-tense voice. Highly recommended for ages 11 and up.

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