2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature: Steve Sheinkin, Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
November 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
HARRY GOLD WAS RIGHT: This is a big story. It’s the story of the creation – and theft – of the deadliest weapon ever invented. The scenes speed around the world, form secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings. But like most big stories, this one starts small. Let’s pick up the action sixteen years before FBI agents cornered Harry Gold in Philadelphia. Let’s start 3,000 miles to the west, in Berkeley, California, on a chilly night in February 1934.
On a hill high above town, a man and woman sat in a parked car. In the driver’s seat was a very thin young physics professor named Robert Oppenheimer. Beside him sat his date, a graduate student named Melba Philipps. The two looked out at the view of San Francisco Bay. (Beginning to Ch. 1)
Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon is the only non-fiction that appears on the 2012 National Book Award shortlist for Young People’s Literature. It is difficult for me to review because as a trained historian, things that I might typically see as shortcomings in research methodology, epistemology, etc. just are not applicable when it comes to writing an exciting narrative history that would appeal to middle school students. So perhaps with just a caveat that I question the strength of some of his sources, I will try to focus on how this would read as a narrative for pre-teen and early teen students.
Bomb tells the story of the attempts by German, American, and British physicists in the 1930s and 1940s to construct a fission bomb, and the attempts by the Soviets to steal the plans for this bomb. The story surrounding the construction of the world’s first atomic bomb is an espionage lover’s fantasy: clandestine meetings, operatives being sent in to attack remote facilities nestled on a sea cliff, moles within the most secretive councils. Volumes have been written about the personalities involved, people including Robert Oppenheimer, who spearheaded the Manhattan Project, and Harry Gold, who betrayed the Americans and shared what he had gathered with the Soviets. Yet it takes more than just a recounting of what this agent or that scientist did or failed to do in order to craft a compelling tale. It takes the twisting of this strand and a looping of this thread in order to weave a memorable tapestry and for the most part, Sheinkin does achieve this with Bomb.
The stories within Bomb unfold in a rapid, almost breathless narrative style. Little emphasis is placed on detailing the motives of the players involved; instead, a premium is placed on creating tension between the actors and their situations. For example, the traitor Harry Gold is introduced early: how will his already known fate of FBI interrogation unfold? What pitfalls will Oppenheimer and his associates face? Will there be false accusations in light of Gold and Alger Hiss?
These questions make the reading go very swiftly, as the reader races to find out just what happened next. Sheinkin’s vocabulary, which by necessity of theme and historical material involves the usage of several technical terms, may be a bit challenging for late primary and early middle school students, but the vocabulary should be little challenge (most of the truly technical terms, like fission itself, are explained cogently in the body of the text itself) to those in the last year or two of middle school or the beginning of high school (12-14 is probably the “target audience” here, although advanced readers from 9-11 might be able to handle the material and grasp its implications). The narrative focus is on the people involved, scientists, politicians, and spies alike and this devotion to the personal aspect of the race to acquire “the bomb” makes it easier for even younger or “slower” readers to grasp the gist of what is transpiring without feeling overwhelmed by technical jargon.
Bomb is best viewed as an “intro” level survey of the period. Due to its intended audience and its focus on the human side of the race to “the bomb,” there is a lot of background material that is either mentioned only in passing (such as the motives of the German scientists, including Heisenberg, in their haltering approach toward research into “heavy water”) or neglected at all (Einstein’s theories on energy/mass conversion and how that theorem and others developed from it led to postulations about the ability to create a controlled fission of uranium or plutonium atoms to create a massive energy release in the form of a devastating bomb). Those stories too are essential to this tale and at times, Sheinkin’s narrative relied too heavily on the espionage angle, leaving holes in the narrative that were barely papered over with his vivid depictions of the actors involved.
Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists in Young People’s Literature, Bomb is a weaker story. Although the actual events and the people involved make for a thrilling account, the book relies too heavily on this aspect, leaving the sense that it is a shallow history that only hints at the other memorable stories that co-occurred with the espionage and scientific brainstorming sessions. So while Bomb likely would appeal to a broad spectrum of middle grades readers, its flaws are magnified when compared to several of the other finalists, several of which are equally gripping in terms of narrative tension, yet which also possess greater depth and breadth of personages and themes.