March Read of the Month: “Atomic Family” by Ciera Horton McElroy

For a novel that begins by plunging right ahead to its grim ending—a little boy falling from a water tower—Atomic Family (Blair, 2023) still manages to build excruciating suspense by the time the story circles back to the fall. Why did the boy climb the tower? Will he survive the fall? Author Ciera Horton McElroy makes readers care about the deeply troubled Porter family—Dean, Nellie, and ten-year-old Wilson—so much that it is painful to keep reading to the foreshadowed tragic fall. And yet it is quite impossible to quit turning the pages.

Events in the story take place over one day. In similar style to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, readers are treated to the minutiae of the Porter family’s inner lives. All three members provide segments from their viewpoints as they cope with their own problems. Yet hovering over each family member—indeed over the entire town, and over the whole world—is the truly unthinkable: the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation.

Atomic Family is inspired by real events and the author’s own grandfather, who was a soil scientist at the Savannah River Site, a nuclear bomb plant whose buried nuclear waste continues to poison and pollute soil and water all along the Savannah River. The entire town of Ellenton was leveled and its residents relocated to nearby towns so the government could build the plant during the height of the Cold War.

It’s Nov. 1, 1961, in Aiken, South Carolina. Dean Porter is an agronomist, a soil scientist, working at the bomb factory. His job is to measure any pollution in the soil or water leaching from the plant and its buried waste. Dean, who grew up in Ellenton in a family of poor farmers, is still troubled by the town’s demise:

There’s a sign someone put up by the county highway that says, and I wrote this down so I wouldn’t forget, “It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone’s else’s town that they love as much as we love ours. But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the U.S., but in the world. We love these dear hearts and gentle people who live in our hometown.” Just painted that with shoe polish on gum boards.

Yet he chooses to work for the bomb factory instead of teaching somewhere like Clemson. Now, he faces a dilemma. He knows “the immediate environmental consequences of unmanaged nuclear waste may prove to be catastrophic.” He must deliver a report to the Atomic Energy Commission, either denouncing the plant’s current practices—and likely losing his job—or going along quietly with the destruction.

That’s not his only problem. Dean knows his marriage to Nellie is in trouble: “Theirs is a Cold War marriage—the explosion never happens. Anger hovers in the silence.”

A bored, stay-at-home wife, Nellie feels insignificant. She drinks too much. Her life of planning parties and choosing curtains on a tight budget lacks meaning. She feels “her light will fade like dying stars.” Her preoccupied husband barely talks to—or listens to—her. She is outraged when she learns Dean has—without her knowledge—taken her son’s baby teeth to measure the amount of radioactivity in them. Her husband, she feels, has placed his work above everything else. Many wives of men who work in the bomb plant are going to march against the dangers posed by nuclear waste and war. Will Nellie rebel against her constrained life and join them?

Meanwhile, the totally endearing Wilson is a fragile child obsessed with Communists, the Cold War, and dying from an atomic bomb. He has turned the family bomb shelter into a hide-out for his little band of Watchdogs who watch for Communists and for Russian bombers. Is he just playing imaginative games, or should adults be alarmed by his behavior?

Another interesting character is the plant manager’s wife Myra. Representing the rise of women activists in the Sixties, Myra gives an impassioned speech to the anti-nuclear marchers:

War and peace are the great equalizers. We are all affected equally by fallout. And we all want better for our world. Now, in the atomic age, all women, not only mothers, have an urgent duty to work for peace in order that the children of the world may have a future.

Her message resonates as much today as it would have in 1961.

Atomic Family delivers an expertly crafted, poignant family story as well as important reminders of the environmental damage caused by the making of nuclear weapons—even if they are never used. The novel beautifully captures an era with all its scientific advances and the accompanying fears and unforeseen problems.

Ciera Horton McElroy was raised in Orlando, Florida. She holds a BA from Wheaton College and an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Bridge Eight, Iron Horse Literary Review, the Crab Orchard Review, and Saw Palm, among others. She currently lives in St. Louis with her husband and son. Atomic Family is her debut novel.

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