Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Sep 11, 2013

Soon after it won a Newbery Honor in January, I checked out Bomb from the library. I packed it (along with a half dozen other books) on one of our infamous trips to Colorado (which, I would love to remind all of you, are now a thing of the past because Mike is DONE. I still can't get over it.).

While we were there, I pulled it out and showed it to my mom. Even though I hadn't read it yet, I had read enough reviews to know that it seemed like just the kind of book my family would like. My mom stole it from me and started to read it aloud to my dad and younger siblings. After the first chapter, they couldn't put it down.

I felt a bit smug (as I always do when someone likes a book I recommended . . . even if it is one I have no authority recommending), but then I didn't read it myself. I know! What is wrong with me? It wasn't that I didn't want to read it. Just, you know, millions of books, not enough time . . . Gah!

So, several months later, when my brother-in-law put me in charge of the family reunion book club, I immediately thought of this book. Mike has a large family (eight siblings, six in-laws, 21 grandkids . . . ), and this seemed like the perfect book for both men and women with an age range spanning almost 60 down to 9.

(Just to clarify, in case you're remembering that I already mentioned a family reunion book club, it was my family that read The BFG. Given the fact that many of them didn't like that book and had already read and loved Bomb, perhaps this would have been a better choice.)

I won't speak for the entire group (although I will say that almost everyone read it, and consequently, we were able to have a really great discussion), but I, for one, loved it. This is some amazingly good non-fiction.

It grabbed me from this very first sentence: "He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years of evidence." That's talking about Harry Gold, an American who became a spy/courier for the Soviets. And the 17 years of evidence? That's regarding the creation of the atomic bomb.

It's rather embarrassing how little I knew about the atomic bomb before reading this book. I can sum up the extent of my knowledge in a few sentences: two massive bombs (which somehow employed fission) were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the cities were destroyed; radiation poisoning followed; Los Alamos, New Mexico was involved in some way; Albert Einstein played a part, maybe?

In my mental WWII timeline, the atomic bomb always miraculously materialized right at the end, never making any sort of appearance before 1945. I guess if I'd thought about it, I would have known that you couldn't possibly just snap your fingers and have an atomic bomb. But that's just the thing: I'd never thought about it at all.

In actuality, the bomb was being considered as early as December 1938, when Otto Hahn first discovered fission. And by the end of 1939, it was more than just an idea. Behind the scenes and for the entire duration of the war, scientists were hard at work building the biggest, most deadly bomb the world had ever seen.

The narrative presented a complex history as it travelled between the research and development of American/British scientists, the Soviets' efforts to steal all plans, and the Germans' simultaneous bomb experimentation. To a small degree, I felt the panic and pressure of, what really was, a blind race. Neither side knew how far the other side had gotten, and both knew that whoever got there first would win the war. Knowing the ending did not lessen my excitement or anxiety over certain events.

And that is to Steve Sheinkin's credit. I can only say good things about his writing. Somehow he turned a true story into a suspense novel. At one point, he mentioned a plot to kidnap Werner Heisenberg, the head of the German atomic bomb program. And I thought, What?! Are you kidding me?! Why have I never heard the story of Germany's top scientist being kidnapped? Well, because it ended up not happening. But you can bet the anticipation of it kept me reading.

(On a related note, after Germany surrendered, the Americans did, in fact, secret away all the important German scientists to an English estate so the Soviets wouldn't have access to them. One of my favorite lines in the book was from the first bugged conversation after their arrival: One of the physicists asked, "I wonder whether there are microphones installed here?" and Werner Heisenberg laughed, "Microphones installed? Oh no, they're not as cute as all that.")

On almost every page, I encountered a fascinating tidbit I'd never heard before. Like the three Norwegians who blew up a ferry transporting all of Germany's heavy water and then disappeared back into their regular duties as if nothing had happened; or the story about Lona Cohen, a Soviet spy who literally placed the atomic bomb papers into the hands of an FBI agent (they were hidden in a tissue box) and then got away with them because that was the one item he failed to search; or the time when the American scientists successfully carried out the first chain reaction and Enrico Fermi was grinning like a boy at Christmas. Like I said before, this was a complex story, but all of the pieces were added in just the right way and in just the right place so that it unfolded in a perfectly seamless and completely gripping way.

Part of that seamlessness was due to the perfect punch lines at the end of every section. This one was one of my favorites: "The message to Soviet leaders was clear. If the Soviets were going to get an atomic bomb any time in the near future, they were going to have to steal it." Each line was concise and emphatic while still pushing you on to read the next section . . . and the next . . . and the next. I kept expecting them to turn into cheesy cliffhangers, but they never did. As with everything else about the book, they were stellar.

As the narrative reached its climax and they got ready to drop the bomb, I was struck by the incredibility of it all. The atomic bomb actually worked. It did exactly what they thought it would do. They were able to do a test run with a plutonium bomb, but they basically only got one shot with the uranium bomb. Years and years of research, and it could have all been a waste if one little part of it didn't go exactly the way they expected it to. As horrendous and horrific as the bomb was, there was also something completely awe-inspiring about the fact that human beings could perfectly orchestrate something so powerful and destructive.

Speaking of which, I had a little inward battle with myself over whether or not an atomic bomb should have even been dropped (and if the answer is yes to the first bomb, then is it also yes to the second one?). After they dropped the test bomb, Isidor Rabi said, "Naturally, we were very jubilant over the outcome of the experiment . . . We turned to one another and offered congratulations--for the first few minutes. Then there was a chill, which was not the morning cold." Sheinkin followed with, "It was the chill of knowing they had used something they loved--the study of physics--to build the deadliest weapon in human history."

After discussing it with Mike's family at the reunion, I am convinced that the bombs were necessary in order to end the war quickly, but it is still so sad and so, so sickening.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, How can you not love history if it's told like this? Then I saw that Steve Sheinkin used to write textbooks. He jokes that now he's "making up for his previous crimes" by presenting history in an authentic but fascinating way. I hope he has many stories left in him because I think this is the way history should be told.

Oh, and Albert Einstein? The one name I actually connected to the bomb? Turns out that aside from an important letter to the president, he wasn't too much of a contributor. I had no idea.


  1. I'm also a fan of this book. So informative, yet written in a way that people of most ages would find interesting.

  2. Sounds interesting! I just finished "Code Name Verity," so I'm still in WWII mode. Also, I'm curious why your family didn't like "The B.F.G." That's one of my favorite books (but I am a big Roald Dahl fan in general).


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