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Sunday, January 27, 2013

BOMB, written by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Book Press, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"As the plane headed home, the crew felt a mix of emotions, including relief that the job was done and hope that the war would now end. But something else entered the mix, a thought Paul Tibbets would never forget. "We were sobered by the knowledge that the world would never be the same," he said."

I started this book because it was getting so much press...and I wanted to know what all the hoopla was. It had won a National Book Award in the United States and had made it onto many starred lists.  I had no sense that I would be vaguely interested in "The Race to Build - and Steal - The World's Most Dangerous Weapon." I was wrong; I was hooked from page 1, the prologue. There was no way I was stopping!

Wow! What a story, and what an incredible telling!

It is absolutely the best kind of nonfiction that we can offer our kids. Steve Sheinkin tells it from beginning to end like an action thriller, despite the fact that it has much to do with physics (and I thought I abhorred all things physics!). It is truly intriguing, like the best spy novels. That, says Mr. Sheinkin, was a goal:

"I love spy thrillers, and was definitely going for that feel. Kept a lot of John Le Carré novels on the night table during the writing process, just as inspiration. Thrillers are driven by scenes, with one bit of action racing downhill into the next. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which parts of the story would work as scenes, and finding out as much as I could about each one. The challenge was to organize them, until they fit together. I didn’t start writing until all this other stuff was done."

It may have proved a challenge to this fine writer; but, he makes it seem so seamless and cinematic. He creates scenes with unforgettable characters and fits them together in a taut and dramatic tale of espionage, science and a race to be first to assemble this weapon of mass destruction. I cannot fathom the research he must have done to know his characters so well, to establish the tension felt by both Ally and Axis nations, and to weave all parts into his story. His list of source materials is stellar, and lengthy. Of his reading he says:

"My work weaves together three basic story lines: the Americans try to build a bomb, the Soviets try to steal it, and the Allies try to sabotage the German bomb project. Each of the sources below focus on some part of one or more of these stories. The bible on the whole subject, by the way, is Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb."

He then separates the sources into Bomb Race Sources, Character Sources and Primary Sources. Following that, he lists quotation notes (and there are many that add greatly to the telling), his acknowledgements, photo credits and an  index.  

While setting the many scenes, he also talks about the weather, the surroundings, the way people looked, the courage to complete such a dangerous and secret project. His people are so real, no matter how complicated their personalities.  Each one has a singular voice that adds to the story being told. He takes us back and forth, from government offices, clandestine meetings, codes and code breaking, to secret missions and sabotage in Norway meant to thwart the German race to construct their own bomb. I was on the edge of my seat while Knut Haukelid and his men faced the dangers of their frigid surroundings as much as the German threat to their well-being should they be caught. It is riveting. There is  no doubt of that.

He sticks to the facts...only the facts. Even as he closes, he offers this observation:

"In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history's most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it's also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It's a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you're in it."

Sobering? YES!  Bravo, Mr. Sheinkin!

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