Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"I Am Become Death:" Bomb:The Race to Build--and Steal--The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin


And then, without a sound, the sun was shining. Or so it looked."

"I looked back up, and I see this white light changing into... a big ball of orange."

"It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described."

The fireball continued rolling, twisting itself into an enormous mushroom shape, glowing dark purple.

"It worked," whispered Robert Oppenheimer to himself.

With the billowing of that first iconic mushroom cloud, the Trinity Project proved that indeed an incredibly destructive weapon was now possible. The news of the first experimental fission in a German scientist's lab in 1938 had spread quickly throughout the world of physics. This new science was quickly understood as a source of potentially destructive energy, and as World War II began, physicists in England, the United States, Russia, and Germany realized that nuclear fission held the possibility for a super weapon and that whichever nation could first produce a bomb utilizing this power would win the war and could conceivably rule the world.

Steve Sheinkin's Newbery-winning Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (Newbery Honor Book) (Roaring Brook, 2012) skillfully weaves three suspenseful strands together into one powerful story--the story of the band of scientists led by Robert Oppenheimer that raced to win the race to create the bomb, the story of the band of Soviet spies who infiltrated Oppenheimer's team  to steal America's  plans for Stalin's bomb, and the band of Norwegian resistance fighters who wiped out Germany's heavy water plant and prevented Germany from completing their bomb before their defeat.

Sheinkin's narration fully portrays the stranger-than-fiction suspense of all three of these stories, beginning with the frantic efforts of American Soviet spy Harry Gold's to destroy the evidence of his years of espionage as FBI agents approach his door. Sheinkin switches seamlessly to the search for Albert Einstein, vacationing incognito somewhere on the Atlantic coast, by two scientists determined to recruit him to petition President Roosevelt to set up the American bomb-building effort, and then moves to the mountains of Norway where resistance fighters cripple the Nazi plant to produce heavy water and then slip aboard a  nondescript barge ferrying the rest of the product, planting explosives and effectively scuttling Germany's atomic bomb project.  Juggling a cast of characters beyond a Hollywood script writer's wildest imagination, Sheinkin breathes life into these historic figures, showing them in all of their conflicted humanity, as revealed in the words of the principle actors themselves.

Oppenheimer's relief that his project had not failed faded immediately.
"It was solemn." Oppenheimer recalled. "We knew the world would not be the same."

He thought of a line from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."

The flight crew of the Enola Gay returning from the bombing run on Hiroshima had similar thoughts.  Navigator Rob Lewis immediately scribbled in his logbook, "My God, what have we done?"  Pilot Paul Tibbetts echoed Oppenheimer. "...the world would never be the same. War, the scourge of the human race since time began, now held terrors beyond belief."

To shape all of these small and world-shaking events into a meaningful whole, gripping for fifth-graders or adults, was a monumental effort for author Sheinkin.  His book reads like a "who-done-it"--and even though we may know how the story ends, the how and why of these three cataclysmic conspiracies make for totally absorbing and thought-provoking reading in which even the purported villains have their own understandable motivations, ultimately leaving the reader satisfied, but sadder and wiser.  The fact that Sheinkin's book was a National Book Award finalist and received three awards from the American Library Association--a Newbery Honor Award, the Siebert Award for informational books, and the Young Adult Library Services Award for nonfiction--shows his success as a storyteller and historian.

Even his grainy period photos and his khaki-drab cover convey a sense of the times, a time at once receding rapidly into the history-book past and yet still with us in the daily news of Iran's uranium enrichment scheme.   In his concluding chapter, the author reminds the reader that what he modestly calls "a big story," did not end at Nagasaki, as in a mind-blowing two sentences he traces the threat of the nuclear race to the present day.

"It's a story with no end in sight. And like it or not, you're in it," says Sheinkin.

For students, Steve Sheinkin adds a extensive appendix of source notes, quotation notes,  and a detailed index.

The Washington Post  calls this book "a fast-paced thriller that happens to be fascinatingly true…."

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