There is a wealth of information to discover in well-crafted historical fiction. The Green Glass Sea, a remarkable debut novel by Ellen Klages, is a treasure chest of facts about the Atomic age carefully tucked away in a compelling fictional narrative of a young girl who didn’t mind being different.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
Dewey Kerrigan doesn’t fit in. She is a sympathetic character from the beginning of the novel, where we find her waiting outside on the steps for her father, a mathematician who works for the government in an "undisclosed location," to pick her up. Dewey has a weird name, she has a limp, she likes “boy things” like radios and mechanics. None of this matters to Dewey, though, because she is about to find herself in a secret city surrounded by men—and women—of genius, including Dick Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, who share her interests. Suze Gordon is a misfit, too, but unlike Dewey, she wants to fit in; the harder she tries, the worse it is. Suze and Dewey find themselves thrown together in Los Alamos through a series of unfortunate events which happen to Dewey. The story of their unusual friendship is set against the backdrop of the race to develop the “gadget,” toward the end of World War 2. Much like the girls in the story, the reader is drawn into the web of unavoidable circumstances surrounding the quest to end the war and left to ponder the broader implications of science for both creation and destruction.
I am so glad I read this book. I didn’t know much about Los Alamos, the Manhattan project or the people who were involved in it, but I could have learned about this from any book. What really stands out as special about Klages’ novel is the very practical and matter of fact nature of her storytelling. While Dewey's relationship with her father is particularly poignant, Klages doesn’t employ emotional tricks to earn the reader’s sympathy. She very realistically portrays two young ladies as unique individuals who are trying to find their place in the world that they find themselves in. Her attention to historical detail is evident in her re-creation of a child’s world in the 1940s—comics, Nehi soda, LIFE Magazine. The reader experiences this world through the eyes of the heroines as they learn that “bad stuff happens” but there is also friendship and beauty to be discovered. The author’s note is brief, but offers some very concise resources for readers who may want to learn more about the history that inspired this captivating story.
Awards and Reviews
Scott O’Dell Award, 2007
New Mexico Book Award, 2007
Judy Lopez Award, 2007
Finalist, Quall Awards, 2007
Finalist, Northern California Book Awards, 2007
Finalist, Locus Award for Best First Novel, 2007
Children’s Picks List, BookSense, 2006/2007
Horn Book Guide (Spring 2007)
VOYA (February 2007)
Horn Book (November/December 2006)
“Clear prose brings readers right into the unusual atmosphere of the secretive scientific community, seen through the eyes of the kids and their families. Dewey is an especially engaging character, plunging on with her mechanical projects and ignoring any questions about gender roles.”—Steven Engelfried, School Library Journal (November 2006)
“Klages evokes both the big-sky landscape of the Southwest and a community where ‘everything is secret’ with inviting ease and the right details.”—The Horn Book Magazine, Nov/Dec 2006
“…the characters are exceptionally well drawn, and the compelling, unusual setting makes a great tie-in for history classes.”—John Green, Booklist (November 15, 2006)
“…the view of the Manhattan Project through the eyes of two out-of-the-loop children is an intriguing entrée to this somber piece of history.”—Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (January 2007)
The historical tie-ins for this book are obvious. I would have students research old copies of LIFE Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines contemporary to the times. Many artifacts from this time are also available in local antique shops and “junk” stores. It would be interesting for collaborative groups to create a History Box surrounding this era.
Students in science could study more about atoms and nuclear energy through the lives of the scientists who researched it. It’s also a good book for discussing the ethics of scientific research. Students could watch the movie Fat Man and Little Boy to learn more about the feelings of the people who created the world’s first weapon of mass destruction.
For Grade 5 or 6 Literature Circles, Scholastic offers a Literature Cirlce Reading Guide with Questions and Extension Activities.
The Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award (Illinois) has a website with activities and resources to accompany books which have received this award. Resources for The Green Glass Sea include links to the history of Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, the Trinity Test Site, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, videos of nuclear explosions, and information about Trinitite (the mineral behind the name The Green Glass Sea).
Klages, Ellen. (2006). The Green Glass Sea. New York: Viking. ISBN 0670061344