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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Bomb: Jonathan’s Take

It has become fashionable of late to praise narrative nonfiction, that brand sheinkin 242x300 Bomb: Jonathans Takeof nonfiction that seeks to employ many of the tools of a novelist while being scrupulously faithful to the factual record. This year we have an abundance of these books to consider including TITANIC, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, THE FAIRY RING, and THE GIANT (and we will consider them in due time), but BOMB sets itself apart from these fine and distinguished efforts because so wonderfully does it succeed that I feel we almost need to coin a new term to describe this level of achievement: novelistic nonfiction.

Hands down, this is the most distinguished book in terms of plot. Weaving three primary strands–the American effort to build the bomb, the Russian effort to steal the bomb, and the Norwegian effort to sabotage Germany’s bomb-making capabilities–Sheinkin spins a marvelous cloak and dagger story all the more impressive because of its verity.

Considering the sprawling nature of this plot, the setting and characters are also remarkably well drawn. For the sake of comparison, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS has a distinguished plot (not as distinguished as BOMB, mind you, but in the ballpark), but probably better development of (fewer) characters and better delineation of multiple (but–again–fewer) settings. SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS also has 40,000 more words than BOMB. LIAR & SPY is also very distinguished in all of these elements, but has a much smaller canvas than either of these books; it has 20,000 words less than BOMB and 60,000 less than SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. My point? Given the nature of the kind of story that Sheinkin is telling, character and setting are among the most distinguished, if not the most distinguished.

Sheinkin has an effortless writing style, one that presents information clearly and succinctly, while building and maintaining suspense throughout. His narrative effortlessly incorporates primary sources which are listed in the back. However, they are not sourced very well–and it is the greatest failing of the book–but Nina will explore this in her post.

If I had to distill the themes of this book into a single word it would be allegiance. What allegiance do we owe our country? Do we owe a higher allegiance to humankind as a whole? What constitutes treason–and loyalty? As we’ve mentioned in the comments, Sheinkin never discusses these themes, allowing readers to do the heavy work of drawing them out.

This one is solidly in my top three. We’ll see if Nina can convince me otherwise . . .

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I loved this book and have been rooting for it to take the Medal. But the sourcing issue has me concerned. It always does with nonfiction and points to the Achille’s heel we all have when trying to evaluate nonfiction for which we are not experts.

    I will point to our discussion from a few years back of Fleischman’s Chaplin bio to illustrate my point. At the time I felt I was unsuccessful at communicating some flaws that existed in that book, flaws I was well aware of due to my own expertise on the topic. The biggest one to my mind was one I didn’t even push at the time because it involved something that folks were already struggling with — Chaplin’s love life. Since the book didn’t end up on the shortlist here I didn’t pursue my issues although I’m sure if I’d been on the committee I would have and I wonder how successful I would have been. But this sets up two questions that I find regularly troubling. How to evaluate nonfiction when you are not an expert? And how to convince others who already admire a book of some flaws?

    I was blown away by BOMB and it rose to the top of my goodreads Newbery list. But I am worried about the sourcing and look forward to hearing about that. And then recently someone who has personal contacts among those who had firsthand information and connections to one of the book’s threads told me of some concerns she had. I will leave it to her or others to raise them here and will need to reread the book with them in mind. But I suspect (as a couple of friends already have) it may be very hard for me to consider it as I love the book so much. Will I do as some did when I raised my issues with the Fleischman book simply decided it is not significant, that it is about taste, writing style? I don’t know, but it is a worry.

    There have been discussions here and elsewhere about the difficulty in evaluating nonfiction when you are not an expert in the topic. When those who are experts raise a concern my feeling is that sometimes others simply dismiss it as a peccadillo rather than a fatal flaw.

  2. Wendy says:

    I’ll bring up the issue that dominates my Goodreads review. I loved the book, I thought it was wonderful. I thought we all might as well stop reading and that we could cut the number of books to discuss at least in half. More than any other book I’ve read, I thought that I could put this up next to some of the “weaker” books (in terms of Newbery criteria) and say “Really?” and anyone would acknowledge that they weren’t in the same contest, even if BOMB didn’t make their own lists.

    Then I read the epilogue and all my enthusiasm went out the window. Not so much that I can forget the 200+ pages being the best book I’ve read so far this year, but enough that I’m not excited about it anymore. The epilogue is written in a somewhat less formal tone, which just niggled a little at first, but as each paragraph confirmed this feeling, it was also sinking in that it wasn’t as well-written. And then the book started to lecture, and to speak directly to American (and only American) children, and to use a different voice. I know the award is given for a contribution to American literature for children, but still, I felt all of these elements weakened the epilogue considerably, and therefore that the epilogue weakens the book not-insignificantly. It doesn’t erase how great the rest of the book is, but coming at the end that way, it has a fairly large impact on me as a reader.

    I think it’s the lecturing that bothers me the most. (Well, that and the lesser quality in style.) The last few paragraphs felt both condescending and unnecessary. If I may quote the very end:

    “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.”

    I will agree with Sheinkin… it must have been difficult to sum up, because it isn’t done very well. I am puzzled about why it was attempted at all.

    All that said, I still have it as my number one book… but with no enthusiasm at all.

    I’m surprised to hear that the book “is not very well sourced” and look forward to hearing more about that, as long as it isn’t just about “this interpretation is different from this other interpretation that I like better”. As I recall about the Chaplin discussion, I thought most of the matters raised were, as Monica puts it, about differences in taste and writing style, and I still feel that way; what’s important to one person isn’t what’s important or interesting to someone else, and that’s okay, or anyway can be okay. But I did do a little reading about my favorite part of BOMB yesterday–the Norwegian mission–and was disappointed to find that it seems like Sheinkin may have played this plot thread up in its importance and impact, out of proportion to the rest of the events in the book. That could be another point down for me, if it’s truly significant.

  3. Wendy, that is not what I wrote above about the Chaplin bio. Perhaps I didn’t write it well, but might concern is about how we nonexperts determine what are significant flaws in nonfiction and what we may discount because of our lack of deep knowledge about the topic in question. While we did battle around issues of taste and writing style, my issues were about information. And about something that I know was a serious, serious flaw (and would have been noted as such, I’m confident, by any Chaplin expert), but was dismissed in the conversation.

    I raise this because the issue of expert issues with BOMB is going to come up and we, nonexperts, will need to determine how significant these are. I know when I heard of them I was dismayed and wanted to discount them, but I have to work against my own heart so I do consider them square on.

  4. Wendy says:

    Monica, all I did was quote what you said about those of us on the other side considering what you noted as errors as matters of “taste, writing style”, so I’m not sure what the problem is. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, for sure, but I don’t see how I’ve done it here. Am I still misunderstanding your original point?

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, I just went back and read the epilogue and I’m still having a hard time grasping your objections–or maybe I grasp them but just don’t see them as being as problematic. The epilogue is mostly one of those what-happened-to-them-after-the-story bits. I didn’t notice any big changes in tone, style, or voice there. When it transitions into a discussion of how the arms race escalated and how it affects us even today, Sheinkin does break the fourth wall occasionally, using a presentational voice that directly addressed the reader rather than his previous representational voice, but I didn’t find the switch jarring at all–and I certainly didn’t feel like Sheinkin was lecturing me (or being didactic–not that you claimed that, but “lecturing” and “didactic” are often used synonymously). I also don’t have a problem with Sheinkin subtly addressing an American audience since that is where the book is published. He doesn’t speak with jingoistic pride or anything so I’m not sure why it would play wrong in other countries–not that the book will ever be published anywhere else. How much nonfiction do we see published here from other countries? We get some directly from Canadian publishers, we got some from England, once in awhile from Australia. But something translated? Maybe once in a blue moon.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’d like to add that most sourcing in children’s and young adult nonfiction–and by sourcing we mean,”Where exactly can I find this quote–or claim?”–leaves something to be desired. TEMPLE GRANDIN, for example, had absolutely none. You might argue that she doesn’t need to source it since she obviously interviewed Grandin who probably vetted the book before publication. But WE’VE GOT A JOB also relies heavily on oral interviews and all of those are impeccably sourced (i.e. we not only know the person interviewed but the date of the interview).

    The problem with sourcing is that it’s not really discussed anywhere in the Newbery criteria. We have accuracy, clarity, and organization under presentation of information. Can a book that has not attributed its sources well (or at all) still be accurate? Yes, it may be harder for the committee to follow an author’s tracks, but such a book can still be accurate. Can such a book be clear? Certainly, the main text can be crystal clear. An author’s tracks . . . not so clear at all. Can such a book be organized? Ditto. So then you’ve got the problem of deciding how much it matters. Is it a peccadillo? Or a fatal flaw?

  7. Wendy says:

    I’m not surprised that it wouldn’t hit you the same way, because we’ve come across this difference of opinion before, such as in the last chapter of FLESH AND BLOOD SO CHEAP. Even though it doesn’t bother you, doesn’t what you term a “presentational voice” refer to a “lecture” by nature? The main concrete stylistic difference that I noted was that Sheinkin occasionally uses contractions in the epilogue that seemed out of sync with the writing in the rest of the book. I know that’s a small thing, or might seem like a small thing, but it’s one of the few things that’s easy for me to point to. While reading BOMB I felt a little shamefaced about the digs I put in about fashionable non-fiction books in my review of the rather unfashionable LINCOLN AND DOUGLASS; I thought “Sheinkin is another one who is doing non-fiction well today, and if my list of popular authors who are doing it well [read: the way I want] is this long, I’m definitely overstating the problem.” Then, while reading the epilogue, it seemed to have all the issues that I object to–an oddly casual style, lecturing, a strong authorial presence.

    Here’s another way of looking at it, Jonathan: you don’t object to the epilogue, but do you think it adds to the book in a positive way? Do you think the book is stronger with the epilogue?

    –I don’t even know why I’m pushing this discussion, since as I said this is still my top choice for the Newbery so far. Just personal interest, I guess. Plus until yesterday I thought there was really nothing else to say about this book of a critical nature. I am really looking forward to further discussion of how the book presents information.

  8. Wendy says:

    Oh, and regarding the thing about the epilogue suddenly declaring the intended reader as an American child–yeah, I know that IS who the intended reader is. I guess I think of myself reading this book at eleven years old; I read it with great interest and excitement, only to find at the end that the author wrote it to teach American kids about nuclear power… it would be a dampener. Until then it just seems like a book, or even just like information or a story, for everyone.

    Regarding your second comment about the sourcing–yeah, I agree; as I’ve said elsewhere it’s not so much the individual facts that matter to me much (I just don’t think we can be fully assured of them anyway without going over every book with a finetoothed comb) as how the author uses them. If it does seem to be true that some events were taken out of context or exaggerated specifically in order to heighten the drama and tension, or to create parallels that didn’t exist, that’s where it would start falling apart for me. Or–I reread Monica’s post on her own blog about the Chaplin biography, and the point that stood out to me was that Fleischman used a quote from a biography that had been widely discredited, including in the book that Fleischman got the quote from (which was a later, more factual biography). I’m guessing that was the serious flaw she mentions above, and I don’t have any idea why (as far as I remember) this didn’t bother me more at the time. It isn’t the misinformation that bugs me, but what seems to me like a knowledgeable misuse of the quote by Fleischman. But then, of course, that brings us back to the point of–only an expert would know the difference, so how do we judge any of these books? If no one here, or on the committee, or whatever happens to be an expert on some topic, that book will slide through without the same level of scrutiny.

  9. Wendy, I’m confused as to where you are quoting me from. I may not be reading carefully, but I don’t believe I wrote that in the comment above.

    And like Jonathan I was wondering about your response to the epilogue as I didn’t have that feeling at all. In fact I thought that final couple of sentences packed an incredible final punch that sent chills down my spine.

  10. Wendy says:

    “Will I do as some did when I raised my issues with the Fleischman book simply decided it is not significant, that it is about taste, writing style?” (second paragraph from the bottom)

    What I wrote may have seemed like I was implying that YOUR objections to the book were about taste and writing style, and for a moment I wrote something like “as Monica characterizes the response of those with the opposing viewpoint”, but I erased it because I thought that was sort of unnecessarily combative (I hate it when people take sides and make teams, because it’s always more complex than that) and that it would be clear to anyone reading the comment thread that you thought the Chaplin book had serious misinformation that went beyond matters of taste and style without me saying so, but maybe not.

  11. Ah. Now I get it, Wendy. Sorry. Actually the serious flaw for me in the Chaplin book was one I mentioned in a comment during the discussion of the book, but it was dismissed and I didn’t know how to argue about it as it was mixed into other stuff about his attraction to very young women. It was his complete omission of Hettie Kelly who was his first love. Chaplin writes about trying to find her and learning of her death when first returning to England and every biography I’ve read recognizes her significance to his art and life. To leave her out completely? A very major flaw that was dismissed in our conversation as a peccadillo.

    I mentioned this mainly because it is just shows how difficult it is to see serious issues if you aren’t an expert on a topic. And it was that worry that was my point in the remark you quoted. That I am going to be the person who will dismiss the expert criticism about BOMB as a question of interpretation or something like that.

  12. Mark Flowers says:

    In answer to Wendy’s question: yes, I think the epilogue adds to the story in significant ways. Just as one example, the section describing Ted Hall’s ability to elude arrest simply by staying calm and never admitting anything was fascinating, well-written, and (to me) an integral part of his character development.

    I mentioned over on Wendy’s goodreads page that I agree with her that the very very end of the book (the last 1 1/2 pages where Sheinkin really breaks the 4th wall for good, and starts his “lecture”) is inferior and perhaps even bad, but I have a very difficult time understanding how that affects the way the rest of book is read and experienced. I think this is a totally different case from FLESH AND BLOOD, where the whole last chapter gave us a very strange and (in my opinion) wrong interpretative frame for the rest of the book. In BOMB, it’s maybe 500 words which despite being poorly written are factually correct – the atomic bomb is capable of destroying the world and all people on earth (not just American children) are part of its story.

    As for the sourcing issues – I don’t read source notes at great length, and I do look forward to Nina’s take, but I’m with Jonathan on not seeing a huge difference between this and other nonfiction of the year (except maybe TITANIC, which is pretty tremendously well sourced).

    I would love to hear more about how Sheinkin may have inflated the importance of the Norwegian episode.

  13. Wendy, I am now all the more curious about what you read about the Norwegians as that was pretty much the issue I heard was problematic from the person who has direct contact with those who were there. She told me that someone she and/or her husband knew had been at that house of German scientists in England and that the reason they were so far behind on the bomb wasn’t due to the lack of heavy water, but because they hadn’t figured out how to miniaturize it as they did in Los Alamos. So she and her physicist husband felt that Sheinkin way overplayed the importance of the Norwegian stuff in terms of keeping them from developing the bomb. A couple of others though have felt that he didn’t over do it. I need to reread the book to see for myself, but would be curious to know what other think.

  14. Wendy says:

    Oh, I agree that it was much worse in FLESH AND BLOOD, and also that the rest of this book is so good, it shouldn’t matter that much–which is why I still have it at #1.

    I based my thoughts about the Norwegian episode on a Wikipedia wormhole I went down, starting with “heavy water” and including this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_heavy_water_sabotage

    Full acknowledgment of the limitations of Wikipedia, and I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is somehow automatically a more reliable source than BOMB, and some of you may read this and not see any dissonance at all. But it certainly made me think.

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    I have one thought about the Norwegian stuff: this doesn’t necessarily absolve Sheinkin of anything, but on my rereading I did notice that the vast majority of the lines which establish the importance of their sabotage to the war effort were in direct quotations from participants in the events (even a German scientist who stated that the lack of Heavy Water was a huge setback).

    As I said, this doesn’t absolve Sheinkin of the historian’s task of discovered the truth to his best abilities, but it does show that at least people at the time believed this was an important piece of the war effort.

    Actually, though, that phrase “people at the time” leads me to my only real criticism of BOMB, which is that he sticks so closely to his primary sources and the knowledge people at the time had that we never get any sense of what insights have been gained about his story over the past 60-70 years. I’m not talking about moralizing like he does in his epilogue, but just standard historical stuff like — how important was the Soviet spying? What really was going on in the German bomb effort? Is there an alternate way of viewing this story in the light of later evidence?

    I’m not saying all of those things had to be answered, or should have been answered, but I definitely noticed on my second reading that the book is very caught up in the story as a piece of journalism and not at all focused on putting anything into its historical perspective. Whether that’s a real flaw, or just my own biases, I leave to further discussion.

  16. Brandy says:

    I am finding this discussion to be absolutely fascinating.

    My initial reaction to this book was pure love. I loved the pacing, the way Sheinkin built suspense, the threads of the three stories woven together, and all the different characters scattered throughout its page. I was impressed by how well he told the story while remaining neutral as the narrator and not moralizing on the issues of the spying or painting anyone as the “bad guy”. I found how he developed Oppenheimer as a tragic hero to be brilliant, but also a potential flaw, because I did question how much of the true man he was allowing us to see.

    I think Monica has made an excellent point about us being careful not to dismiss anyone’s concerns regarding the actual information in any non-fiction up for discussion. I’m curious to learn more about the Norwegian sabotage now, because I was left with the impression from the book that it was detrimental to the development of the German bomb in a major way.

    I didn’t have a problem at all with the Epilogue. Yes, it had a different style and tone than the rest of the book but non-fiction epilogues often do. I agree with Mark that it added quite a bit to the characters. I even liked the note that the last paragraph ended on.

    I’m interested to see what Nina has to say about the sourcing. I didn’t really pay that much attention to it when I read the book. (I confess I usually don’t.)

  17. Nina Lindsay says:

    I should hustle up and post now that everyone’s wondering. My issues are not with the actual facts, as I’m no expert, so now I’m intrigued at what Monica’s alluding to…but rather how they’re presented.

  18. Cecilia says:

    This is one of my favorite parts of Newbery discussions–the fact that there is almost always a book that many people champion, that gets votes in our first round of nominations, outside support (starred reviews, NBA nomations, etc.) and then when we get to an in-depth discussion, issues come up. I always learn a lot.

    I’d also like to know more of the specifics of the impact of the Norwegian sabotage, because I first learned the story of the heavy water factory sabotage and the ferry sinking from an old article in Cricket magazine. It was probably published over ten years ago, but I definitely remember getting the impression that the heavy water was the last thing needed for the Germans to complete the bomb. Then again, maybe that was a common perception at the time (in the media, etc.) that has trickled down to the present day. I’m clearly no expert, so I’m eager to hear more.

  19. Eric says:

    Those interested in Norwegian sabotage/resistance should pick up SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN. Fictionalized account of a teenage resistance fighter. I think it is being overshadowed this year by BOMB and CODE NAME VERITY but it is very good in its own right.

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Lots of food for thought here . . .

    I’m actually having a hard time remembering the Norwegian chapters, but I would say this. First, I do think Sheinkin strives for a journalistic style so I have no problem with him limiting the point of view to what was commonly held then (such as thinking that the destruction of heavy water was more important than it was), but if that is indeed true then the epilogue would have been a nice place to update that information. Second, I think the problem is that if you asked every German scientist in that house what they needed to do in order to achieve the atomic bomb, you may have gotten a different answer from every single one. That’s certainly the way it seemed in Los Alamos before they were successful. I look forward to what other people have to say about the Norwegian chapters–and then a reread is in order.

  21. I need to reread and so some research to help me with this issue about the Norwegian action.

    First of all, I want to know what the standard view is among historians as to its importance in terms of keeping the Germans from developing the bomb. My acquaintance tells me it wasn’t, that there were other reasons they weren’t able to do it and the heavy water had nothing to do with it. But is that the accepted opinion among experts? A little poking around on the topic makes it appear to be a controversial topic. Or maybe not? Is Sheinkin giving us a feel for what was thought at the time versus now? I want to know more.

    And then I want to reread to determine whether Sheinkin actually gives that impression that keeping the heavy water from the Germans was key. Some have told me they don’t think he does.

  22. Eric says:

    I would like to point out that really fantastic section about the OSS officer tasked with removing Heisenberg from play. I really liked that Sheinkin sets us up for another exciting mission only to have the plans changed at the last minute. The fact that the US wanted to take Heisenberg’s brain away from the Germans also implies that even with the removal of the heavy water, the US was still concerned with the possibility of the Germans manufacturing a bomb.
    Can’t wait to reread this book!!!

  23. Martha says:

    Thank you, Eric, for pointing out something positive about the book — I feel like this conversation has been completely hijacked by the sourcing issue and it’s difficult to get back to a consideration of the book’s strengths.

  24. Wendy says:

    Martha, I think most of us like this book so much that it doesn’t require a lot of conversation, and that most of us have stated how much we like it. But if you want to talk about the book’s strengths–what did you think they were?

  25. Martha, I love this book. It is top on my Newbery list. But I feel strongly that I need to be able to stand back and consider the flaws and not simply dismiss them as taste or something else. So that explains my intense comments of this AM.

  26. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I know that both Monica and Wendy still esteem the book very highly, I, too, am disheartened that we now have two threads on this book that are basically negative/defensive.

  27. Mark Flowers says:

    I am still mulling deeply the information over on Nina’s thread but I’ll take Jonathan and Martha’s bait to discuss some of the book’s strengths.

    Basically, until Nina’s post I thought that there was simply no question at all that this was the best book for children of the year. Why? Jonathan has already pointed out Sheinkin’s amazing handling of plot and his effortless writing style. To those I’d add (one of my favorite things about Sheinkin) his refusal (except in those last 2 pages) to moralize at all. He gives Hall, Fuchs, Gold, and the rest of the Soviet spies full space to explain what they were thinking. Hall’s explanation in particular made me sit up–he claims that he had already surmised that the US and USSR would be the only superpowers left after the war and that it would be incredibly dangerous for only one of those powers to have nuclear weapons. Essentially, he claims to have come up with the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction prior to the bomb even being invented. Now Sheinkin could have condemned Hall for giving secrets to the Russians, he could have placed doubts in the reader’s mind, he could have praised Hall for his prescience, he could have done a lot of things. But he doesn’t – he allows this statement to stand on its own for readers to make of what they will. That shows tremendous restraint and respect for his readers.

    In fact, I’m not sure that Jonathan doesn’t undersell the point of characterization just a bit. Sheinkin’s characterization of Oppenheimer, Gold, Groves, Hall, and many others may use fewer words, but in many ways I think is just as impresive as the much longer SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.

    Basically, if you take this as a piece of prose, divorced from any questions of its importance as nonfiction, I think it is hands down the best thing written this year for children. I’ll go over to the other thread to talk about the nonfiction issues.

  28. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan: do not get too down about this yet. Some of the best books require this sort of examination, and come through it. We’ve had pretty knock out arguments on many books that have medals on them: ONE CRAZY SUMMER, ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, CLAUDETTE COLVIN, etc….

  29. My glowing blog post about BOMB is here: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/steve-sheinkins-bomb-the-race-to-build-and-steal-the-worlds-most-dangerous-weapon)

    I adored the plotting, the smart development of character, and the superb layout of the various settings. I thought he did a remarkable research job and was blown away by the way he seemed to pull out money quote after money quote. My favorite is still “There was back-slapping,” Haukelid said of the happy moment, “and much strong hearty cursing.” (page 79)

  30. Mark, I completely agree with you re the lack of moralizing. In my blog post I wrote:

    Something that is more of a taste thing is that I personally like very much that Sheinkin keeps himself out of things, keeping the facts, the characters, the story front and center. Even at the very end when he points out the current state of affairs with the bomb he simply points out the truth to his young readers — that it is in their hands now. He doesn’t overplay things, lecture young readers on what they need to do. No, he just puts the situation out there, notes that they will have to deal with it now, and leaves it at that. His final two sentences say it all: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.”

  31. Brandy says:

    I completely agree that the characterization is just as much a strength of this book as the plotting and setting. All of them were presented as the real people they were and I was interested in invested in every one of them, but particularly Oppenheimer. It was the omniscient narration combined with Sheinkin just telling the story and not slanting it that allowed for the characters to come through as genuine.

  32. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Last night, I found a side conversation between Mark and Wendy in the comments to her goodreads review that I found very interesting, and Mark’s recent comment promped me to remember it. I hope Wendy doesn’t mind if I quote part of it here below. While I don’t find the ending to be problematic the way she does, I do think her propsed ending is superior.

    In general, as you may have noticed, I have a particular beef against “author’s notes” in historical fiction. I don’t have the same blanket problem with author’s notes in non-fiction, where I think sometimes they’re necessary or can add a lot to the book, such as in They Called Themselves the KKK. And this isn’t, for the most part, an “author’s note” anyway. I wouldn’t have objected to this epilogue on general principles, and I agree with you about the strength and interest of the section on Ted Hall. But with the change in style, and as you note, the last couple of pages, this did start to hit my “I hate author’s notes” problem. If you’re familiar with the idea of “mansplaining” (and that isn’t a term I ordinarily use, because I find it kind of reductionist and sexist), I think most author’s notes are sort of “authorsplaining”–”this is what you should think about the book! this is why I wrote the book! this is why this book is important to me!”. It’s unnecessary at best, and damages the impact of the book at worst (well, really it can be worse than that, but those are special cases).

    I’m particularly sensitive to the way books end in a way not everyone is. (And I have a particular loathing to being told what to do or what to think that made school a pretty unhappy place for me.) We agree about the weakness of the end of the epilogue so I won’t go into that, but will still say: what if the last line of the book had been “If confronted with the same problem today,” Hall acknowledged, “I would respond quite differently.”? Now, that is what would make chills go down MY spine. That would be an interesting, sort of open-ended way to end the book for me. Or if there had been no epilogue–if the section about Ted Hall that both of us like had been worked in to the last chapter–the last line of the book might have been, referring to Harry Gold, “He had a few minutes to destroy seventeen years of evidence.” That brings us back around so elegantly to the beginning of the book.

  33. mslibrarian says:

    what if the last line of the book had been “If confronted with the same problem today,” Hall acknowledged, “I would respond quite differently.” — but then it wouldn’t have included the young readers who might not have considered as closely attached to what’s happening in the world the way we adults are aware of. Those last words, “You’re in it” sent chills down MY spine and I imagine have made huge impression on my young readers.

  34. TeenReader says:

    I just finished the book, but I would like to get in the discussion if it’s not too late. :)

    First of all, is it against criteria to say “So what if the source notes are not the greatest or the Norway chapters were exaggerated, this is a great, distinguished piece of literature that deserves to be recognized.”? Because that was what I kept coming back to, even though this discussion is necessary and interesting. I think that it is still a great work no matter what.

    Also, I really liked the epilogue, but can see how it left some cold. It seems pretty unanimous, though, that the first 200 pages are just stunning.

  35. Wendy says:

    If the Norway chapters are significantly exaggerated–manipulated to make them more exciting and significant than they are–I’d have a hard time calling this a distinguished work of non-fiction.

  36. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The committee really doesn’t have to determine whether the documention is acceptable or not (it’s not part of their criteria). They have to determine if the information presented is accurate, clear, and organized. The inaccuracy of the text has yet to be proven in this forum. Nina said that she cannot find the sources that corroborate some of Sheikin’s information. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there; it just means she hasn’t found them. The only way we could really prove or disprove this for certain is to read all of the sources listed in the bibliography–and I don’t think any of us are willing to go to those lengths.

  37. Alys says:

    What would the Real Committee do if they had similar concerns? Obviously they’re very busy reading children’s books and don’t have time to read through the entire bibliography. Would they ask for expert opinions from history professors and the like, or is that too close to giving away that the book is under consideration in the first place?

    Personally, I think the Norway chapters are fine. Even if, in retrospect, they were not as important as they were thought at the time (and even here, it seems there is some controversy about that), it is clear from the context that it was considered extremely vital at the time. The book is squarely focused on what the Americans, British, and Soviets were doing. Maybe the last section of the book (that I haven’t read yet) will be different, but so far we have not been given much information at all about what the Germans were actually doing. The perspective is firmly Allied, with much anxiety and speculation about what the Germans may or may not have already achieved. It makes sense in that context to include the desperate Norwegian attempts to disrupt the supply lines.

  38. Wendy says:

    “it is clear from the context that it was considered extremely vital at the time”–you mean, the context provided by the author, which is what is in question?

  39. Mark Flowers says:

    I think the key quotation in the whole book on the issue of the Norwegian missions is “German physicist Kurt Diebner . . . later explained why: ‘It was the elimination of German heavy-water production in Norway that was the main factor in our failure . . . ‘” (p. 163).

    Sheinkin seems to have gotten this from Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) (btw, Rhodes’s book won the Pultizer and NBA for Nonfiction), which contains the Diebner quote. Rhodes goes on to say, “The race to the bomb, such as it was, ended for Germany on a mountain lake in Norway on a cold Sunday morning in February 1944″ (p. 517). Sheinkin doesn’t even go this far, though. He makes the point that no one actually knew what was going on in Germany: “Leslie Groves was pleased by the news from Norway. Pleased, not satisfied. Yes, he’d managed to deny key material to the Germans. But the bottom line was this: He still had no idea what was going on inside German weapons labs.” (p. 116).

    Even more recent books, like DeGroot’s The Bomb: A Life (2004) point out that the Allies were convinced that the heavy water production meant the Germans were close: “Pessimists still assumed that Germany was racing forward with its own bomb. This assumption was reinforced in early 1944, when allied agents learned that a shipment of heavy water was leaving Norway” (pp. 51-2). This book is a history of the bomb from 1939 all the way to the present, and DeGroot still finds it worthwhile to mention the Norwegian missions.

    Whatever the truth of Germany’s actual capabilities, Sheinkin clearly is on solid ground in citing Allied concerns about the heavy water production, and the seeming necessity for the destruction of Vemork and the Hydro.

  40. A few days ago I did a google search for the Diebner quote and it came up (via google books) in Thomas Gallagher’s Assault in Norway, also one of Shenkin’s sources. But Mark has done much more legwork and I, for one, am very appreciative.

  41. Wendy says:

    I’m pretty well convinced on this as an acceptable authorial choice, though I still suspect it was played up for drama. Not that BOMB was ever anything but my first choice.

  42. Mark Flowers says:

    @Wendy – for the record, I agree that it is almost certainly played up for drama.

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