Usually I do advance or pre vacation reading, particularly if my husband and I are traveling to a new area. We look through travel books for interesting sites at the destination and places to visit enroute. We often plan the route based on museums, historic sites, art galleries to visit along the way.
Last fall we took a big-for-us vacation: Santa Fe, New Mexico. We did our usual review of travel and history books in advance and made a plan to visit the many museums and art galleries in Santa Fe as well as Taos, various national parks and natural sites in the greater Santa Fe area. One day we went to Bandelier National Monument and nearby Los Alamos.
At Los Alamos we toured the science and history museums for an overview of the fascinating story of this once secret city, the scientists and their families, and the work of the weapons laboratory that developed the atomic bomb. I came home and wanted to read more about the human side of this city and project, not the technical details of the scientific research. I found the perfect book in our collection: 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant.
The book is loosely framed around Dorothy McKibbin, a young widow hired by Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian director of Los Alamos, to run the Santa Fe office. She greeted arrivals who, incredibly enough didn’t know exactly where they were going or what they would be working on, dealt with the numerous challenges of their daily lives, and became the gatekeeper between the hidden world of Los Alamos and the outside world.
The focus is on the day-to-day experiences of those who worked there during the stress of World War II and the rush to develop the bomb to end the war. Some technical details add to the understanding but don’t overpower the human side of this story. Especially interesting was the discussion among those involved of how the development and use of the bomb would change the post war world.
Even though I knew the outcome, of course, this book was still a page turner for me.
109 East Palace by Jennet Conant