February 3, 2010

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Kleges

9 of 10: I loved The Green Glass Sea, another title from the Massachusetts Children's Book Award list. This is excellent historical fiction about the Manhatten Project, a topic there isn't a lot written about for kids. My students seem to be really interested in it too, with some encouragement.

Like much of the world, it seems, I have an interest in World War II. With two grandfathers that fought in the war (one as a bombardier and one in the navy), it might be hard not to. I've read a lot of historical fiction dealing with this time period (most recently Ten Cents a Dance), and this one is really a gem.

Dewey is nearly eleven, living with her grandmother in St. Louis, while her father is in Chicago doing war work. He was formerly a physics professor at Harvard, but once the war started up, the government recruited him to work on their projects.

Now Dewey's grandmother has suffered a stroke and so Dewey is being shipped off to live with her dad (to her delight). But instead of him showing up to take her back to Chicago with him, an army woman shows up and puts her on a train, bound for New Mexico, where, to her surprise, her father is.

She ends up at Los Alamos, a location that didn't even appear on maps in that time, and she is quickly enrolled in school and settles in to life there, delighted to be with her father on a daily basis, even if he sometimes doesn't come home until she's in bed.

No one, of course, talks about what everyone is working on, although the kids speculate endlessly about what "the gadget" might be. Dewey has always been a little bit of an outsider, content to work on her own inventions, especially since her leg, shorter than her other, requires her to wear an odd looking shoe and makes it hard for her to run quickly or participate in the games the other children play.  She doesn't mind the differences, though, and in Los Alamos, she finds a school where they allow her to skip about three grade levels in math, and the streets are full of professors from top universities and Nobel prize winners eat dinner at the same restaurant you do. It's kind of magical for Dewey.

Suze, on the other hand, who has TWO parents involved in the project, hates being in Los Alamos, especially because she hates her outsider status. She's just too big and bossy and all her attempts to fit in end up making her the point of ridicule. The idea of being even more on the outside by associating with Dewey is absolutely unappealing to her. And yet, association is forced when Dewey's dad has to go to Washington for an extended trip, and Dewey moves in with Suze's family.

The setting of this book was so real - you could just feel the dusty streets, the pounding sun in the summer, the hastily assembled housing for the families, and the old-timey feel of the general store where the kids assemble for cokes and ice cream on hot days.

It's always fun to read a book, I think, where you know more than the characters. You know, of course, what "the gadget" is and what it will be used for and how it will affect the outcome of the war.

The book itself didn't really make any judgments about the moral consequences of the bomb, but the discussion section had an interview with the author where she talked about Americans being the bad guys in the end [edited: she said Americans weren't the good guys]. I have to admit, this soured me just a little on the book. I mean, I think the dropping of the bombs was pretty terrible, of course, but I also had two grandfathers slated to be at the forefront of the Japanese invasion and the casualty predictions for such an invasion make it at least a very real possibility that, without the bombs, I wouldn't be sitting here right now. I, and my siblings and my parents, probably would never have been born.

All that considered, though, it's still a book I would recommend without hesitation.

The cover of the school's copy (a paperback) is, sadly, even less appealing than this one, which I think has prevented it from ever being checked out. I'm hoping it'll circulate pretty well now that I've introduced them to it.


  1. I loved this book! I am not sure I have kids who would check it out, either, but this was one of my favorites a few years ago. I so enjoyed a different perspective - I had never really thought about the scientists living in Los Alamos and their families. I haven't read the sequel yet (guess I am saving it for something special :) )

  2. Thank you for the review and your point of view. For that you get a big hug. :)

  3. Actually, I didn't say we ended up being the bad guys.

    I said we didn't end up being the good guys.

    It's said that, 100 years from now, all that will be remembered of WWII is the concentration camps, and the atomic bomb.

    One of those was the Nazis. One of those was Us.

    That's why I think it's such a moral conundrum, and why it's still a matter of intense discussion, more than 60 years later.

    Because whether or not it would have saved thousands of American lives, the bomb also killed more than a million human beings.

    And that makes it hard to be the good guys...

    Sounds like your students are lucky to have such an involved and passionate teacher.

    I hope your conversations are lively!

  4. Despite the destruction caused by the bombs, it's hard to make a case for the Americans, (and the British, and the Russians) NOT being the good guys. The Germans, Japanese, and Italians had to be stopped. The war had to end. The bombs ended the war.

  5. Saying that the Americans weren't the good guys does nicely portray the moral ambiguities of war and the question if all was permitted to end it...coming from a country that was occupied, and where the effects are still felt on a daily basis of the war,and even more from a city that was bombed by "friendly fire" ie by mistake by the Allied forces, I sometimes wonder if the end does justify the means. I understand the author's point, although I wouldn't put the atom bomb specifically on the Americans. I think it took the Americans to make it, but that most of the western world's leaders were in agreement of it being used. What I do find hard to think about, and what makes us/everyone but the Nazis slightly less good guys, is how the bomb was set to detonate just before it hit the ground because that would do more damage. This wasn't a bombing of military supplies or hqs or whatever; these people were deciding how to kill more people. That makes my blood run cold, if I'm honest.

    In the end, Truman did what he thought was right. Your grandfathers did the same, and for that courage they are to be commended.

  6. The dropping of the atomic bombs will probably always be controversial but I in no way think that makes us end the war as "not the good guys."

    What people will remember about the war in 100 years is what will be taught in schools. I teach history and my students of course knew about the atomic bomb detonations over Japan but had never ever been taught that millions and millions of Chinese were killed at the hands of Japan during World War II.

    I'm not trying to say that those atrocities justify killing but concentration camps set up by the Nazis and the Germans were created with the purpose of exterminating entire races of people (or running sick, twisted scientific experiments on humans). The goal of dropping the bombs was to completely end a war that had already taken millions of lives. Estimates of only thousands of American lives being lost if invading is pretty conservative. A land invasion could have easily meant that over a million American and Japanese lives would have been taken.

    I've also never heard that the bombs were detonated in the air just so more would die. The way I understood it is that it allowed for less nuclear fallout and maybe even less lives lost. I have never specifically researched that but if it's true that is horrible.

    My classes all got in lively debates over this topic. It is interesting to look at the situation and think that the bombs could have just been detonated over the ocean to scare the Japanese into surrendering with hardly any death. Many also argue that a second bomb was completely unnecessary. It truly is a moral dilemma but I think it is much easier to condemn in hindsight and that the leaders of the U.S. were really just trying to end an awful war. The behavior of the Japanese military previous to the attacks caused many to believe that they would never surrender since that was extremely culturally taboo.

    The U.S. decision to drop the bombs though should never be compared with what the Nazis or Japanese did during World War II.

  7. So sad, my library doesn't have it! And how cool is it that the author commented on your blog? Too cool.


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