Bomb by Steve Sheinkin
In Bomb: The Race to Build —And Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, Steve Sheinkin introduces young readers to the many plots and subplots involved in the creation of the world’s first nuclear bomb. Extensively researched, Bomb employs primary sources from declassified FBI files to simultaneously tell of Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, Soviet espionage, and Allied efforts to sabotage Nazi Germany’s ability to develop the bomb first. Sheinkin weaves together the stories of some of the 20th century’s most famous and notorious figures—the ingenious, courageous, and patriotic, as well as the deceitful, ruthless, and calculating—in this gripping novel on the weapons that ended the most destructive war in the history of the world.
The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. — from the Bomb dust jacket
Gripping History Told as Story
The most impressive thing about Bomb is that Sheinkin deftly combines accurate history, compelling narrative, and accessible prose all at the same time. The Second World War, spanning nearly six years and covering most of the globe, is a complicated subject. When you throw in the additional elements of secretive spying among allies, covert commando operations into enemy territory, and nuclear physics, the confusion abounds. Sheinkin solves this problem expertly and has created a book that almost any middle-school boy will love and learn from.
And they will learn—a lot! Most American history classes will mention the atomic bombs, spending a day or two covering its impact on the end of the war in the Pacific. Some teachers will allude to the Manhattan Project and credit Oppenheimer for his role in leading the efforts, or even name the plane involved and the bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945. But very few students will learn about this pivotal and heroic undertaking in any meaningful depth. Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of teaching history in most schools; in the interest of covering all of the content before the end of the year, much must be glazed over, including the details and the stories that make history so interesting.
But that is why interested students should read books like Bomb. This is a book that provides detailed descriptions of the build-up before the major historical event: the people and the process responsible for the product. What kid doesn’t ask: How does an atomic bomb work? How big was the explosion? Why didn’t Hitler make one? How did the Soviet Union get the bomb? As one who teaches World War 2 to 7th-graders, this book will be one of the first places I send my insatiably inquisitive history students (which, in a class of twelve-year-old boys, includes roughly all of them).
Heroes and Villains
My two favorite aspects of the book are the overall tone and the historical characters that it introduces to its readers. Because the Manhattan Project was so intimately involved with the Allied war effort, a complete history of the Project and its heroes must include the history of the war with both its heroes and its villains. In addition to Dr. Oppenheimer and other leading scientists of the day like Einstein, Szilard, and Fermi, readers also meet the political and military leaders of the world’s superpowers in the 1940s: Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, Stimson, and Truman. This creates the great possibility of further reading on those figures or other important events like World War I, the Korean War, or the Cold War. One of the marks of a good book should be its propensity for inspiring its readers to read more, and Bomb does just that.
The tone of the book comes naturally from the content itself, but also from the analysis of the author and from the actions of the characters he focuses on. Of course Bomb is full of suspense, excitement, and intrigue, because it is the story of top-secret operations that would change the course of history, diplomacy, and warfare forever. But Sheinkin uses the characters and subplots of this turning point in history to tell stories of physical heroism, like that of exiled Norwegian commandos infiltrating their Nazi-controlled homeland to destroy key atomic research facilities. He highlights moral courage when Oppenheimer opposed the creation of the vastly more destructive hydrogen bomb by the Atomic Energy Committee.
He dramatizes, and thus bring to life, dedicated patriotism seen through the tens of thousands of men and women from across Europe and the United States. The men and women who offered their genius and their life’s work to defend humanity against the destruction of human life perpetrated by the Axis Powers. Stories such as these contrast sharply with those of the self-interested deceitfulness of Soviet spies, couriers, and informants. The reader watches the ruthless utilitarianism of Stalin and his KGB in their quest to emerge from the war as the world’s dominant superpower. Through these interwoven plots, Sheinkin’s conclusion ultimately arises as a valuable lesson for young readers, championing the use of individual and cooperative genius and self-sacrifice to combat evil.
Parents should be aware of a few instances of explicit content before ordering Bomb from your preferred online bookseller, or checking it out from the local library. One of the book’s rougher (and more minor) characters, Eifler, who is essentially a U.S. military-sanctioned hitman, is quoted several times using language inappropriate for middle school readers (pages 52, 117, and 217). Lastly, in order to describe the nature of a suspicion that the FBI had about Oppenheimer’s loyalty, Sheinkin references a meeting that the then-married Oppenheimer had with a former girlfriend (and Communist-sympathizer) saying only that after their meeting he spent the night at her house with her (page 104). While Sheinkin goes no further and historians disagree about whether or not Oppenheimer had an extra-marital affair with Jean Tatlock, teens and pre-teens may read through the lines and pick up on the suggestion of infidelity made by the FBI and, perhaps, by Sheinkin himself.
While these few moments are worth noting and looking in to, they do little to impact the overall tone of the book. Bomb remains a read that I will highly recommend to students and parents for years to come.