Yesterday I had a chunk of free time and so sat down with Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Dangerous Weapon. And wow…wow…wow. I was blown away by it. This is nonfiction thriller writing of the very, very best. Sheinkin weaves together the stories of the race to build the atom bomb, the developments in the war that made things more and more urgent, the efforts to steal it, and the efforts to stop others from creating their own.
First of all is the research. Sheinkin provides superb source material and a few comments in the back matter and makes it evident that he did the hard work of reading and reading and reading and then sifting through the massive amount of material to find some of the best stuff possible. Yes, he has the history there, but what makes this so wonderful is that he also finds and uses the greatest bits of information — the weather, the look of a person (say a tan Einstein after a day of sailing), and absolutely wonderful quotes. My favorite is on page 79:
“There was back-slapping,” Haukelid said of the happy moment, “and much strong hearty cursing.”
I just loved that he found that quote to use among all the other remarkable stuff going on in that particular story line (which is movie-ready, by the way). I can only imagine Sheinkin sitting there and just pulling every humanizing moment or quote to possibly use. I think it may be these quotes and moments that really send this one to the tippy top of greatness for me.
For related to the quotes and imagery is that Sheinkin develops his characters, real people, and makes them as vivid and complicated, as sad and happy, as any fictionalized ones. And he does it honestly and fairly using his research. From Oppenheimer to Gold to Truman he has us know them as players and characters in a remarkable story.
And plotting. Wow oh wow. Sheinkin manages to keep several story lines in the air, weaving back and forth among them to great effect. As others have pointed out this is better than any thriller. Sheinkin is a remarkable storyteller.
Something that is more of a taste thing is that I personally like very much that Sheinkin keeps himself out of things, keeping the facts, the characters, the story front and center. Even at the very end when he points out the current state of affairs with the bomb he simply points out the truth to his young readers — that it is in their hands now. He doesn’t overplay things, lecture young readers on what they need to do. No, he just puts the situation out there, notes that they will have to deal with it now, and leaves it at that. His final two sentences say it all: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.”
An absolutely outstanding work of nonfiction for young people.