The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages


Told from the perspective of two tween daughters of two different scientists involved with the Los Alamos component of the Manhattan project, The Green Glass Sea is an interesting take on the Trinity testing, a project in a town so secret that it isn’t on any map, nor are any residents of the military base able to mention even their general career descriptor, such as “chemist” or “physicist”, for fear that someone not affiliated with the project will wonder why there are so many scientists congregating on a military base out in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

As the book begins, Dewey Kerrigan is traveling by train to be with her father in Los Alamos. A somewhat shy girl, with a penchant for tinkering with machinery and a limp resulting from an improperly healed broken leg, Dewey doesn’t fit in very well with her schoolmates’ idea of proper “girl” behavior; she gets on better with the boys than the girls, and better with adults than children–she’s on a first name basis with several of the scientists working on the “gadget”, as it is known on the base. She quickly is given the nickname “Screwy Dewey” for her mechanical tastes, and precise habits.

Suze is already residing on the military base, though not yet part of the social structure of her tween peer group; she desperately wants to get in good with the girls her age but is as an awkward an outsider as Dewey–she’s been nicknamed “Truck” for her size and awkward manners.

Filtered through the eyes of the tween and teen-aged narrators, there are only hints as to what is going on, though through seventy years of political maneuvering, it’s quite clear to adult readers (and I hope kids?) what the nucleus of the scientists’ efforts is. The Green Glass Sea is more a description of the sequence of events than a delving into the emotional background of Klages’ characters. What all this meant to the kids was somewhat different from the adults, who at least had their work to absorb them: dislocation, separation from their normal life before the project, and they can’t even say that their parents are scientists or mail drawings of the view out their windows to their family living elsewhere.

And to cap things off, Dewey must come to stay with Suze’s family while her father is posted elsewhere for a couple of weeks. Blech! The two girls–one artistic, one mechanically minded–scrape along together better than they expected, though one would hardly call them friends.

The book’s climax comes, not surprisingly to adults, with “Trinity”; the two girls are woken at dark o’clock and taken out to the desert to watch, though to them all it means is a bright light, seen from afar. (It was a bit more exciting for the adults, trust me: at the time, no one knew quite what would happen, other than a very large flash and bang.) Not too long after that, Suze’s father arranges a trip out to the blast site; the heat of the “gadget” has not only blown out a crater but fused the sand into a bowl-shaped sheet of green glass, vaguely resembling sea glass. They can’t stay long as it’s still quite radioactive, but they explore a bit, and bring home fragments of the green glass.

There’s a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, that’s well worth the read for anyone who liked the first. The Gordons, and Dewey, have moved from Los Alamos with the closure of that project to Alamagordo, New Mexico. The father is working TO create working rockets, with the aid of Werner Von Braun, and the mother is busy with political activist groups who want to end just such research. Dewey and Suze are now in eighth grade, and wrestling with all the problems of adolescence. Suze befriends some of the local Hispanic families, but the worst disruption for all the family members comes when Dewey’s mother, a leather wearing “go with the flow” motorcyclist, appears to reclaim her daughter.

Klages caught my eye with her short story, “In the House of the Seven Librarians”, about a girl raised by seven feral librarians who remain behind in the Carnegie building left empty when the town’s library moves to more suitably modern facilities; that’s a wonderful quirky fantasy, ideal for those of us who wouldn’t mind a bit being raised thus. The Green Glass Sea, while not a fantasy, is equally well written. At the risk of turning off kids with the work (whispers) schoolwork, I can see this fitting in well to a module on World War II, but it’s a fun read; I hope kids will read this anyway.

Ellen Klages’ web site

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