The Next Best Book for Your Book Club and Common Read

Emily Strasser, Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2023). Hardcover $26.95; paperback coming in September for $24.95

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Authored By Leah C. Valley on June 18, 2024

A blend of memoir and historical fact, the author shares her intellectual and emotional pilgrimage to parse out and reconcile her connection to Oak Ridge, Tennessee–one of three secret cities that built the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb and the primary site of uranium enrichment for America’s subsequent nuclear weapons program.  Over seventeen chapters, Strasser shares an intimate portrait of her paternal grandfather–George, the ramifications of his decades-long work at Oak Ridge, and a broad history of America’s nuclear weapons development program and its legacy.  Her efforts to uncover her grandfather’s past and to grapple with her own “inherited guilt” about the local and global consequences of his work (p. 268) have resulted in an excellent narrative that demonstrates how geopolitical events have local, personal, and far-reaching consequences.

Strasser introduces readers to her need to explore George’s past in the chapters entitled “Fire,” “Ash,” “Still Burning,” “Homeplace,” and “Kin.”  Here she shares her her inherited memories of him as well as others’ recollections about his work and his personal demons.  In discussing the origins of Oak Ridge, Strasser also shares her family’s deep connection to the region as a place of home and comfort, and the author expresses her deep love for the area, despite the personal and international trauma connected to it.

Particularly poignant is the chapter entitled “Countdown” in which Strasser seeks to address one critic’s accusation that her interpretation of the U.S. decision to bomb Hiroshima was overly poetic and ignored historical context.  To address this criticism, Strasser “resolved to know the numbers, to count them” (p. 63).  Her accounting includes hypothetical causalities from an Allied land invasion of Japan, the unknown deaths of miners who toiled to unearth the “uranium bound for bombs” (p. 69), the sixty-seven Manhattan Project scientists who signed a petition urging the president not to use an atomic bomb, the number of seconds between when the atomic bomb exited the Enola Gay and when it eviscerated Hiroshima, and the incalculable number of lives instantly snuffed out from the direct bombing as well as those who later died from radiation-related cancers and other health effects.

Emily Strasser Photo by Alex Carroll Photography
Emily Strasser Photo by Alex Carroll Photography

Strasser toggles back to Tennessee in subsequent chapters to focus on the health consequences and environmental costs of nuclear production for those in the area around Oak Ridge.  In the chapter entitled “Mercury,” she details the undisclosed “half a million pounds of mercury spilled or lost to the environment,” the “nearly two million pounds not accounted for” at Oak Ridge, and her grandfather’s potential accountability for the spill (p. 201).  Similarly, in “Bombed without a Bang,” Strasser extends her inquiry into the “long-term consequences on human health” resulting from “half a century of a rushed and secretive arms race” (p. 211).  She reflects on the implications for the region, including the land and lake where she “went from pajamas to bathing suit and back again” (p. 212).  The book closes with “Sirens” in which Strasser reflects on her connection to Oak Ridge via the lake house built by her grandfather and the land that he farmed.  She also discusses the ongoing work at Oak Ridge and her environmental activism.

Readers will be relieved to find that Strasser’s journey into George’s past appears to have quieted some of her “inherited guilt” (p. 268) and provided her with some modicum of solace.  Her declaration of having “dug stubborn roots into poisoned earth, despite and because of the crimes of her ancestors” (p. 273) makes this story about the intersection of her personal and family history with the history of America’s atomic and nuclear production all the more compelling.

Historians and readers familiar with the atomic bombings will appreciate the author’s inclusion of how the Japanese government and survivors of the atomic bombings narrate this complicated and terrible human experience.  While historians of Oak Ridge and the U.S. atomic/nuclear arms race may struggle to reconcile Strasser’s sense of personal guilt with the expressions of pride and accomplishment expressed in Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II and in the personal narratives gathered as part of the Center for Oak Ridge Oral History, Strasser’s narrative is an excellent example of how people respond to their lived and inherited histories in diverse and numerous ways.

Based on impressive historical research that includes archival records, oral histories, and personal investigations of place, Half-Life provides a timely addition to Cold War and American environmental historiography for historians and non-historians.  Strasser’s book will be of particular interest to audiences outside of academic history–including book clubs and Common Read participants–given its interweaving of history, environmental studies, ethics, and memoir.

Leah C. Vallely, Calhoun Community College

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