Here a spy, there a spy

A review of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

A cliff top factory deep in the Norwegian wilderness. A beautiful, isolated ranch deep in the New Mexico wilderness that suddenly becomes a hub of government activity. Clandestine meetings, secret messages in invisible ink, scientists disappearing to points unknown on secret missions. It sounds like it could be a mid-seventies James Bond film, but all of these elements can be found in the remarkable story of the world’s most dangerous weapon—the atomic bomb. In his history of one of the greatest triumphs of science and espionage of the twentieth century, author Steve Sheinkin brings to life the people behind the bomb in Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. 

This is a true story that hardly needs any embellishment, but Bomb stands out from other World War II histories for the vividness with which Sheinkin portrays the odd cast that had a hand in bomb creation and—more importantly, the theft of its design by Soviet secret agents. The commander of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, referred to the Los Alamos ranch as ‘the world’s largest collection of crackpots,” and there’s little reason to doubt him. Sheinkin draws on quotes and recollections of scientists who were racing the clock to harness the brand-new concept of nuclear fission—and do it before the Nazis. The decades of living with nuclear power have maybe made it somewhat mundane to today’s readers, but it is startling how much of a chicken-wire-and-spit the process sometimes became. One steely-nerved physicist filled air holes in the highly unstable explosives with a dentist drill while cradling the bomb in his lap; famed scientist Richard Feynman writes of sheltering behind a car dash as the mushroom cloud rose over the desert. 

But Sheinkin’s story really shines with the efforts by the Soviets to steal the bomb’s secrets, and the Americans who tried to foil their plans. The people who betrayed those secrets had surprisingly different reasons and backgrounds: some were tied directly to Los Alamos, others believed fervently in Communist ideology, others were merely caught up in past mistakes and too frightened to fight back. The methods of tradecraft the Soviets and Americans used and the times they came so close to being discovered seem like fiction, but here they actually worked. Who knew that a ripped Jell-O box could be a secret message or that a US mission involving a retired baseball player turned hired gun was actually launched? 

Sheinkin captures the excitement scientists and spies felt as they worked towards gaining the bomb. But as the consequences of atomic warfare become clear, the shift to uncertainty and fear is clear: conceived to stop a horrific regime, the bomb opened a new chapter of possibilities and terror.  Bomb was a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, and is getting some buzz in Newbery circles. Teens, strong middle school readers and anyone who likes an excellent adventure tale—especially true ones—might want to pick up a copy of Bomb.   

Comments

It was just announced this morning that Bomb was named one of the Honor Books in this year's Newbery Awards.

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