Stopping the Nazi Atomic Bomb and Other Tales
It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup
Sam Kean (B.A. ’02) is inspiring proof that a liberal arts degree can lead a person in unexpected and even exhilarating directions. The Gopher physics and English grad has forged a busy career writing lively science books, including The Disappearing Spoon, which transformed the periodic table into an adventure story, and Caesar’s Last Breath, a science and history text of the air we breathe.
Now Kean has produced a real page-turner: The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb (Little Brown). In his author’s note, Kean shares his excitement at finally writing a book that centers around physics, one of his college majors, calling it “just the sort of physics-adventure tale I always wanted to tell.”
In this exhaustively researched and highly readable volume, Kean tells the story of the World War II race to prevent the Germans from developing atomic weapons. Despite getting a two-year head start with their Uranium Project, the Germans ultimately lost this race, in large part due to the Allied spies and saboteurs who made it their mission to stop them.
Although some of the scientific explanations of uranium and fission bombs will be tough going for Kean’s fellow English majors, The Bastard Brigade is mostly lots of fun, thanks to Kean’s engaging storytelling and the fascinating cast of characters who stopped the Nazis’ atomic efforts.
Among those characters: baseball player and polyglot Moe Berg, who, while on a baseball tour of Japan in the 1930s, took important film of Tokyo’s harbors, oil refineries, and railroads and later served as a spy for the OSS in Europe; Joe Kennedy, who volunteered for a suicidal flight designed to blow up German bombing bunkers in northern France; and Operation Gunnerside, the infamous team of 10 Norwegian skiing commandos who managed to storm the Vemork power plant and destroy the critical heavy-water cells in its basement (something an earlier and larger team of British commandos had disastrously failed to do).
And then there’s Boris Pash, a former Hollywood High School coach turned army reservist who tracked down nuclear scientists and uranium in Italy, France, and Germany, and Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie (daughter and son-in-law of famed scientist Marie Curie) who heroically kept their lab’s heavy water away from the Germans and—in Frederic’s case—worked for the French resistance throughout the war.
Incredibly, Kean’s 420-page book is by no means his last word on the subject of The Bastard Brigade. Just before the acknowledgements, he notes that eager readers can find bonus material on his website (samkean.com/ books/the-bastard-brigade/extras/notes/).
And the rest…
For a haunting account of an infamous unsolved Minnesota crime, read The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decade-Long Search by Jack El-Hai (University of Minnesota Press). This slim volume tells the desperately sad story of the three Klein brothers, who went out to play at a nearby North Minneapolis park oneday in November 1951 and were never seen again. El-Hai, who has taught journalism at the University, first became interested in this story after answering a 1990s classified ad pleading for information on the brothers, who at the time had been missing more than 40 years. El-Hai has expanded a 20-year-old Minnesota Monthly article into this book, as well as into a Twin Cities Public Television podcast.
Loss, of course, is part of the human condition. Many women experience miscarriage and infant death, but for each one it is a solitary tragedy. And research shows women of color live through these losses at a far higher rate than white women, to our national shame. Some of their stories are movingly told here in the collection What God Is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color (University of Minnesota Press), edited by Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang. Included are poems and essays by both editors, as well as 24 other women.
The death of a parent, especially one’s only parent, is a particularly wrenching form of loss. Kathleen Glasgow (M.F.A. ’02), handles that pain and its aftermath with great skill in her second young adult novel, How to Make Friends with the Dark (Delacorte). Featuring the indelible character of 16-year-old Tiger Tolliver, this emotionally nuanced coming-of-age story follows Glasgow’s best-selling debut novel, Girl in Pieces.
Losing a homeland is part of the immigrant tradition. In 21st century Minnesota, Swedish immigrants are mostly the stuff of Ole and Lena jokes, but the poverty and hardship that once awaited them in places like Minnesota was very real. One family’s fictional story of emigration and settlement in St. Paul is told in the novel Swede Hollow by Swedish writer Ola Larsmo, translated by Tiina Nunnally (University of Minnesota Press). This is the story of Gustav and Anna Klar and their three children, who left Sweden in 1897 to settle in a collection of shacks perched in a ravine on the edge of St. Paul.
Although not a U of M alumnus himself, Larsmo was greatly helped in his research by several Minnesota sources, including professor emeritus of geography at Macalester David Lanegran (B.A. ’70) and Concordia College history professor Joy Lintelman (M.A. ’83, Ph.D. ’91).
A more modern kind of new American is heard from in My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education (Picador) by Jennine Capó Crucet, (M.F.A. ’06), a second-generation Cuban American. Capó Crucet, whose first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection, teaches creative writing at the University of Nebraska.
In this essay collection, Capó Crucet explores what it feels like to be an “accidental” American, a first-generation college student, and a Latinx woman working in a white profession and living an even whiter state. In her funny, honest, and fearless style, she writes about the meaning of Disney World, white versus Cuban weddings, adjusting to an Ivy League college with its puzzling customs, and much more. Throughout you know yourself to be in the hands of a skilled writer and a complicated thinker, whose book is certain to both engage and challenge its readers.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer and editor. She also reviews books for the Star Tribune.