I’m on a three-year personal challenge to read and report history and story lessons from all the books that earned the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. This month I read The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, the 2007 winner.
The Green Glass Sea is set during World War II at the secret military installation, then known as The Hill, now known as Los Alamos. This is one of the places where scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb. The story follows two 11-year-old girls, children of scientists, who live at The Hill.
Many of the civilian scientists had their families with them on The Hill. The kids didn’t know what their parents were working on, but they knew everything was very secret, and they couldn’t tell anyone. Even letters to their grandparents went through censors. Plus, their community didn’t officially exist. It wasn’t on the map, and all mail went through a P.O. Box. In the book, one high school senior has trouble getting accepted into college because the school he attended was top secret.
The kids on The Hill tried to have a normal life in a very unusual place. However, these were scientists’ kids. They weren’t average. The two girls in The Green Glass Sea were both extremely bright, but in very different ways.
One of the things that I thought was odd at first was the extreme reaction of the kids when they learned of President Roosevelt’s death. But one of the girls points out that she had never known anyone else as president. And they heard him all the time on the radio. I suppose children of the 1940s would’ve felt like they knew FDR; he was their friend, or even a pseudo grandparent. And since he was leading the nation in a giant battle against the Axis Powers, they might’ve wondered how life could go on.
The Green Glass Sea taught me about compelling beginnings and interesting characters.
In the beginning, we meet Dewey, who is waiting for her father to come for her, but a military woman comes, picks her up, and takes her to the train station. So there is tension right away because her dad doesn’t come, and she doesn’t know where she’s going.
Then bit by bit, we find out Dewey had been living with a grandmother, who had a stroke and was institutionalized, and was then staying with a rather uncaring neighbor. In addition, Dewey is an interesting girl who likes order and wants to know what to expect, and she keeps getting put into situations where she doesn’t know what’s going on. I felt sympathetic early on. Then, on Dewey’s trip, we see her personality and the positive ways she copes with change.
This leads right into my character lesson: The Green Glass Sea has two point-of-views. I liked Dewey so much I was a little resentful when the POV switched the first time, but I quickly found Suze interesting. Suze is not always likable–she sometimes acted mean–but readers can relate to her because she wants to be included by the other kids. And both Dewey and Suze are unusual. Dewey excels in math and mechanics, and Suze is very artistic.
Both girls change during the course of the book. Dewey has to deal with the worst circumstances, and she grows, but in a quiet, internal way. Suze grows internally, too, but she has the biggest change of heart and actions.
A heads up for teachers and parents: the language in this book is stronger than in many middle grade books. And the adults drink and smoke quite a bit, with few repercussions. Accurate for the time period, and yet minimized compared to real life–just something I want you to be aware of.
For more information about life on The Hill and other secret installations involved in developing the atomic bombs:
Finally, here is Ellen Klages’ website.
Join me Nov. 25 as I look at the very different experiences of other children during WWII in the 1995 winner, Under The Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.
What are some other real-life unusual places children have grown up in? What kids’ books have beginnings that hooked you in the first couple pages? What child protagonists have you found interesting and relatable, even if he or she wasn’t always likable?