The Green Glass Sea

by Ellen Klages

Cover image

Publisher: Puffin
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2008
ISBN: 0-14-241149-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 318

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Dewey Kerrigan's father is a scientist, deeply involved in the war effort and called away where she has been unable to join him. She had been living with her grandmother, but her grandmother had a stroke, so she's living with a neighbor. But finally, her father is sending tickets so that she can join him where he's working. She's a quiet child, almost eleven, who loves science, making things, taking things apart, and understanding how they work. People, particularly other kids, are a lot harder.

Suze is the child of two scientists, but otherwise is the opposite of Dewey in most ways. She's large for her age, more physical, and more interested in reading comics and being accepted by other girls her age than in science. But despite trying hard, she's mostly left out.

The Green Glass Sea is a young-adult novel about not fitting in, about creativity and looking at the world in different ways, and about friendship. The twist is that it's a historical novel about the children of US scientists during the height of World War II. Suze's home, and the location to which Dewey receives tickets, is Los Alamos.

When I first heard about this novel, I assumed it would heavily involve the history of the atomic bomb, but it doesn't. The bomb development is constantly lurking in the background, and one can reach for some parallels and commentary on it in the story if one wants to (the discussion guide at the end of the book I read does some of that). But in a straightforward reading, it stays in the background. The primary function of the Los Alamos setting appears to be to create a closed environment of highly trustworthy but extremely busy adults, raising bored kids who have little choice in their play group and whose lives are distorted in various ways by the all-out day-and-night efforts of their parents. The heart of the story is Dewey's at times heart-wrenching emotional journey, and Suze's parallel journey that becomes entangled in it.

One of the things I find most impressive about this book is the number of difficult character situations Klages pulls off. I was just complaining in a review of McDevitt's Deepsix a few days ago about a character journey from unlikeable to warranting grudging respect, and how it felt, as a reader, like having to eat my peas. Klages does the same thing here, including the required early wincing, but she does it so smoothly and with enough empathy that it worked the whole way. She pulls off confusion and misunderstanding without making me want to shake the characters for not talking to each other, and she manages an introverted character who doesn't feel like a stereotypical geek. And, very unusually for this sort of young-adult novel, she does an amazing job of creating a situation where the reader can believe the adults are good-hearted, mean well, and still can't solve the kids' problems themselves.

Dewey was the heart of this book for me. The Green Glass Sea switches between her viewpoint and Suze's, and Suze's becomes increasingly enjoyable towards the end of the book, but I always looked forward to Dewey. The calm, careful narrative style in her sections reinforces the reader's sense of her personality, and Klages does a great job keeping the emotion present but understated so that the reader fills it in and becomes emotionally invested in the story. She had me wholeheartedly rooting for the kid, grinning at every triumph and aching at every set-back, and I notoriously dislike children. It's an exceptionally well-done bit of characterization, particularly in how she shows Dewey as clearly different but still clearly an eleven-year-old, with many of the same interests as those around her even if she expresses them a bit differently.

I loved this book most of the way through, and I wanted to fall in love with it, but unfortunately the one serious drawback is the ending. Klages builds up to a sharp emotional climax, one that kept me up late into the night quickly turning pages and unable to stop before I found out how it would turn out. Some of the build-up had me in tears. But then, right at the moment of the emotional climax, the story oddly sidesteps the emotion. I literally stopped, went back, and read the scene again looking for the emotional payoff that I thought the story was advertising. I think I can see what she's trying to show about the characters by keeping the emotional tone so muted and avoiding the traditional conclusion, but it was too muted. The viewpoint character for the scene seems to have no idea that anything climactic just happened. There's no moment of catharsis, which for me left the rest of the book feeling slightly off, slightly uncomfortable, and weirdly empty. It's intensely frustrating, since I think she had all the ingredients of a fantastic ending that would have cemented my opinion of the book. I do wonder if the ending suffered by leading into a denouement that had been published separately as a short story.

That said, it's still a great journey, and the ending isn't irredeemable. Both the description and the characterization are excellent throughout, and while The Green Glass Sea isn't directly focused on the atomic bomb project, I think Klages captures much of the emotional tone of Los Alamos and some of the profound unease about the conclusions of the work. I will definitely pick up the sequel, which is a good final measure of what I thought of the book.

Recommended, with reservations due to the ending.

Followed by White Sands, Red Menace.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-12-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21