JONATHAN HUNT: Before we have another go at BOMB–I’ve finished reading it again–I want to address two of the other concerns that were raised on previous discussion threads. First, the epilogue–well, not the whole epilogue, really–the last page where Sheinkin breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. On rereading, I didn’t find this subtle shift preachy at all (if preachy–or didactic–is even the right word). There are only three places on that page where Sheinkin cuts in with a direct address: And while our two countries . . . And if you think atomic explosions in Asia. . . And like it or not, you’re in it.” This does not strike me as overly intrusive, and while I am sympathetic to Wendy’s proposed alternate ending, I can’t find fault with the ending as Sheinkin has written it.
Second, the weight of the Norwegian sabotage effort. Sheinkin makes two things clear throughout the narrative. First, because of the increased level of security and secrecy, none of these countries–the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany–could be certain of the scientific progress of the other countries. All espionage and sabotage efforts, therefore, had a highly speculative nature. And second, even the top German scientists disagreed about how close they actually were to making the atomic bomb, as we saw from their conversation at the British house.
German physicist, Kurt Diebner, a leader of Hitler’s bomb project, later explained why: “It was the elimination of the German heavy-water production in Norwaythat was the main factor in our failure to achieve a self-sustaining atomic reactor before the war ended.”
This quote from page 163 more than anything else may cause some to view the significance of the Norwegian sabotage as exaggerated, but if you read Diebner’s quote carefully and in context, it’s really one scientist’s opinion about why the Germans couldn’t build an atomic reactor (i.e. the equivalent of what Fermi did at the University of Chicago), not necessarily why they couldn’t build the bomb itself. I know there’s more stuff to unpack here, but I don’t think this quote suggests anything other that what it says.
Do you have any thoughts on either of these two issues, Nina? Or would you like to cut straight to the chase and rephrase your own objection?
NINA LINDSAY: Neither of these points has concerned me much. I put the epilogue question to bed as you have . . . can’t find fault with it as it is, especially considering its context and weight in the overall package. The weight of the Norwegian sabotage is one that, if I were on the actual committee, I’d have gone after an historian to review for us. I’m happy to take your assessment, for the purposes of a Mock discussion.
My “objection,” as originally presented here has been tempered from what we’ve learned from your email exchange with Sheinkin . . . that is, we know a little more about how he develops his narrative from his research. But readers of the book don’t.
All nonfiction writers”project” . . . we all know this. They do it to different extents, and in different ways, and it’s part of the art of presenting the history to the audience. I find Shenkin’s sentence-level style of educated projection–however close to reality it is–often crosses a line that allows a reader to “trust” his process, because he doesn’t give us insight into that process. I don’t think this is a wrong way of writing, and the lack of context might be more acceptable, or assumed, in the adult history market. But I think we have better examples of style of non-fiction narrative for a child audience in other books this year.
That’s the nutshell. I don’t care in the end that he didn’t cite every source (that was never the heart of my objection), though I do think he could have had better explanatory back matter that would have allowed readers to approach his text better.
As you feel towards Splendors & Glooms , I can’t begrudge this title an award, but I can’t yet vote for it either. I do worry that the perceived “Documentation Witch Hunt” drowned out other thoughts about the book, and am curious if there are new points to raise.
The thing that frustrated me about those earlier exchanges is that I felt it was kind of like that old cliche–”Steve, stop beating your wife”–and then many people just assume that Steve is, in fact, a wife-beater. Here the alleged crime was not being wife-beating, but embellishing/fictionalizing/fabricating history. Your original comments were posed in a speculative manner, but many of the subsequent commenters did not make this distinction and took the matter as settled. Or at least, I felt that way.
I do think it has been a productive discourse–even if we didn’t satisfy your particular concerns–because it allowed me the opportunity to think deeply about this book, this particular issue, and the field of children’s nonfiction in general. BOMB is merely one of a handful of excellent nonfiction books this year, and while I do think it is arguably the best, I am also enamored of several others, too. And most of them do a better job of allowing the reader to follow the author’s tracks.
While this book excels in many of the criteria, the thing that impressed me the most on a second reading is also the very thing that impressed me the most on my first reading: the plotting. But this time I was able to appreciate how well this has done. I think the blurbage has oversimplified this as a three-stranded book. There is a fourth strand that contextualizes the war effort, say the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for example. I could go on, but I’ll stop gushing now.
I’ll ditto the frustration about the earlier exchanges. I have to take some responsibility for it, by opening that door…though I did try so very hard to always reiterate the context of my objection, and to be diligent about clarifying it in comments. (It’s been picked up again at Educating Alice). I do feel I learned a heck of a lot by having the discussion. And hopefully this email exchange post will set some context for us to be able to move ahead in discussing this title in better context. While I find the sentence-level narrative style and backmatter to be far superior in MOONBIRD, I do agree that Shenkin far outshines Hoose in terms of plotting, and creating a engagingly suspensful arc.