Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Saturday, March 18, 2017

There are so many significant and interesting themes throughout this book, I hardly know where to begin.  This story encompasses  Los Alamos from the 40’s to the 70’s Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, Women’s Lib, Vietnam, and perhaps one of the most surprising and delightful aspects—orthonology. 

Yet, the narrator tells us, as early as page two, that this is not Oppenheimer’s story nor  the story of the creation of the bomb; it is not her physicist husband’s story. This, she says, is my story, the story of a woman who accompanied the bomb’s birth and tried to fly in its aftermath.

Meredith Wallace is seventeen years old in the fall of 1941 when she begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago.  As a student she becomes captivated by an older and brilliant professor, Alden Whetstone.  When he goes to Los Alamos to work on a secret wartime project, she follows.  She has every intention to return to her own graduate studies but when she becomes adrift in a traditional marriage with severe limitations, she loses her own sense of passion and purpose.

She eventually channels her scientific ambition into the study of a family of crows, birds whose free life and companionship are the very things beyond her reach.  But when she meets a young geologist, a Vietnam vet, she is awakened to changes she never thought possible.

One reviewer says, “A beautiful and sad book that explores the kinds of difficult choices women make for their families.” In the tradition of THE PARIS WIFE and LOVING FRANK, Church’s absorbing novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man.

Perhaps one of the reasons the writing rings so true is that the author, Ms. Church, grew up in Los Alamos in the 50’s, to a scientist father and a biologist mother. Although Meredith’s story is not the author’s story, nor her mother’s, the question that prompted her to tell this story was ,”What could these intelligent women have been and done had they been given the opportunity? I wanted to highlight the sacrifices these women made in the 50’s and how they came to redefine themselves during the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s.”  The notes from the author at the end of the book are as interesting as the novel itself. 

It is also obvious that the author loves the Los Alamos terrain she grew up in.  Perched atop the spread fingers of several mesas in the mountains of New Mexico, “nature permeates the town with plentiful hiking trails through aspen and ponderosa forests. Anasazi ruins sit atop sheer flesh-colored canyon walls dotted with ancient hand and footholds dug into the tufa rock. Mountain lions, bears, and smaller animals populate the canyons and crows abound.”

I must admit I never knew crows could be so interesting.   One example, crows can recognize individual faces and pass that knowledge on to their young!  It is an interesting parallel that as Meredith’s crow journals, where she keeps meticulous notes of their behaviors, change so does she.   And a little bonus: each chapter has a few facts about different species of birds—owls, sparrows, jays, and many more. Not only their characteristics but the interesting names for their groupings, such as “ a party of jays, tidings of magpies, exaltation of larks.”  Perhaps good to know should you be a Jeopardy contestant someday.

Church, a lawyer by profession, turned writer late in life (this is her debut novel, at age sixty) has created a story about the moral choices we make and their cost and consequences.  It is also a slice of life of a pivotal time in our country’s history at  a unique site in America.

I highly recommend it, perhaps best read on a porch swing or hammock while watching a“charm of hummingbirds”.

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