The prologue to “Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” describes FBI agents raiding the apartment of Harry Gold, the spy who gave key secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Told from Gold’s point of view, the scene reads like something from an espionage thriller.
But that’s nothing!
Wait till you get to the heart-stopping story of Knut Haukelid, a Norwegian insurgent working for the Brits during World War II, who parachuted into his homeland with a crack team of special forces, skied overland to his target in the dead of winter, and blew up a super-secret scientific facility crucial to the Nazis’ attempt to develop atomic weaponry of their own.
The third thread of Sheinkin’s masterful slice of 20th century history focuses on the development of the atomic bomb in isolated Los Alamos, New Mexico, and in particular Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant, skinny and idiosyncratic (but aren’t they all?) physicist who led the effort under the military supervision of the blustering Gen. Leslie Groves.
This book is a winner for readers age 10-110, excluding only those who already have a rock-solid grasp of the period. For the rest of us, “Bomb’s” virtues are hard to overstate. The narrative is organized so as to move briskly from one story to the next without confusing the reader. The scientific explanations are accessible without being simplistic. And — as always in his books — Sheinkin keeps the focus on the people, portraying a huge cast of characters generously and humanely in three dimensions.
Harry Gold, for example, was a traitor and a spy and in some ways responsible for the Cold War. Still, Sheinkin tells the story of his recruitment and motivation neutrally, so that this reader, at least, felt sympathy. It’s not quite “there but for the grace of God,” but it is a cautionary tale about an average guy who didn’t say no and was overwhelmed by geopolitics.
One way literature is a force for good is when it puts the reader in the mind of a character in a way that expands the reader’s understanding of human behavior, including his own. That Sheinkin manages to do this in nonfiction aimed at young readers is a real accomplishment.
“Bomb” won all the nonfiction awards for 2012. In 2010, the bomb was Sheinkin’s “The Notorious Benedict Arnold, A True Story of Adventure, Heroism and Treachery.” This story opens with an execution by hanging — not Arnold’s but the handsome, charming, and erudite British spy whose capture by a ragtag trio revealed Arnold’s plot against West Point and probably saved the infant republic.
Next thing you know, we’re back in the 17th century when the first Benedict Arnold sailed to the colonies, acquired land, and eventually became governor of Rhode Island. Sheinkin’s efficient depiction of the diminishing fortunes of the notorious Arnold’s antecedents does a lot to explain his character. Gifted with energy, courage and brains, he was determined to restore the family’s glory and in his own mind justified even his most dastardly act if it served that purpose.
Sheinkin’s writing is straightforward and often funny. Among my favorite scenes is George Washington attempting to comfort Arnold’s hysterical young wife after she learns her husband’s plot has failed. Washington, Sheinkin writes, “sat stiffly on the bed ... This sort of thing was not his long suit.”
Sheinkin is also the author of three irreverent, illustrated history books with kid appeal: “King George: What Was His Problem?,” “Two Miserable Presidents: The Amazing Terrible and Totally True Story of the Civil War,” and “Which Way to the Wild West: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell you About Westward Expansion.”
Martha Freeman’s latest book is “The Case of the Missing Dinosaur Egg,” part of her First Kids mystery series. She lives in State College.