Fiction — audiobook. Read by Rebecca Lowman, Hillary Huber, and MacLeod Andrews. Random House, 2016. 13 hours, 42 minutes. Library copy.
On January 3, 1961, a nuclear reactor in the small Idaho town of Idaho Falls melted down. It is the only nuclear disaster on U.S. soil to result in a fatality — three, actually — and yet the event has been largely overshadowed by the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979.
Williams’ fictional account of the accident in Idaho Falls follows Paul Collier, an Army serviceman assigned to work at the CR-1 nuclear reactor, and his wife, Nat, from their relocation to Idaho in 1959 through the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in 1961. Realizing almost immediately that there are issues with the reactor, Paul attempts to raise the alarm within the military chain of command. Yet his efforts are rewarded with a deployment to a nuclear reactor in Greenland, and Paul, who feels like he cannot warn his now pregnant wife, is to forced to leave Nat and their two young daughters behind.
“A sick feeling stirred inside of him, the gut-cold confirmation of his lifelong worldview: that this darkness was really what life was. Anything else you made for yourself was a temporary and tentative fiction.” (pg. 115)
Paul’s refusal to confide in Nat combined with their physical distance leads the widening gulf in their marriage. And when Nat accepts the help of a “local yokel” named Esrom, tongues in the small military town begin to wag so badly that the gossip buoys the spirit of the novel’s third main character (Jeannie, the wife of Paul’s boss) and manages to reach Paul all the way up in the Arctic.
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that I’m growing tired of novels that alternate the point of view between a cast of characters, but I’d like to put this novel forth as an exception to that complaint because the structure helps draw out the tension between the characters. The lack of communication between Nat and Paul felt almost justified when the reader is privy to each character’s point of view.
Nat knows the culture of military wives — and young wives, in general — in the 1960s; she knows that a friendship with another man will be looked at with scorn. Yet she cannot tell her husband about her car accident during his deployment without worrying him or, worse, giving him the opportunity to say that he told her so about her driving.
“A man’s love could come to you like a charming traveling salesman and get you hook, line, and sinker; and just when you felt certain of it, move away.” (pg. 297)
Paul knows his wife is more than capable yet he also knows that she is stuck because of him and his career. He could tell her that CR-1 is unstable, but then where would she go? Home to the parents in a society that believes it is her duty to stand by her man? And if he raises the alarm with his wife, what is to stop her from raising the alarm with the larger community and landing him in hot water with his superiors?
Even Jeannie, whose chapters felt like an odd addition in the beginning, begins to add to the mounting tensions as she stirs the pot between Nat and Paul and provides an explanation (or, at least, background information) on her husband’s behavior. She humanizes the villain in Paul’s career and the puppet master in Paul and Nat’s marriage.
“Depressive thoughts, she reminded herself, weren’t any more real than happy ones just because they were harder to have.” (pg. 223)
So the titular longest night becomes a series of long nights as Nat and Paul pull apart, as Jeannie begins to realize the impact turning a blind eye as on the one consolation prize of her terrible marriage. As the reader wonders what will meltdown first — the CR-1 reactor, Paul’s career, Jeannie’s facade, or Nat and Paul’s marriage. And it is the tension that kept me engaged, that wraps this novel up in an almost eerie mood and made it into one of the best pieces of historical fiction that I’ve read in some time.