First-Rate Debut on Forgotten Incident

The Longest Night

By Andria Williams

Andria Williams’ debut novel touches on enough topics that it should appeal to a wide audience. These include a true historical event, now nearly forgotten, as the centerpiece, life as a military spouse, and the feelings of loneliness and isolation with deployment in a sparely populated section of eastern Idaho. Add to this that Williams speaks with authority on the domestic aspects of the novel, herself a military spouse, and you have a solid first outing which reads as if written by an old pro.

It’s 1959 and Paul and Nat Collier find themselves in Idaho Falls. They are an Army family and Paul has been assigned to work with a team of operators testing a new smaller nuclear reactor, called the CR-1 in the novel. Paul discovers in short order that the reactor is fraught with problems severe enough to lead to a catastrophic event. Bad enough, but worse still, the supervising master sergeant Richards wants to hear nothing about the troubling issues and even goes out of his way to cover up incidents; seventeen years in, he cares solely about approaching retirement and his pension. Paul, the polar opposite of Richards, a man of conscious and integrity, tries to buck the rigid system of command, to little avail. He becomes so frustrated with the situation and with Richards in particular that he brawls with the master sergeant, the result being he finds himself redeployed on the spur of the moment to an ice-bound nuclear facility in Greenland for six months.

On the home front, he and Nat have two daughters, and later add a third, born while he is away in Greenland. In some of the strongest moments in the novel, readers get a first-hand look at what military home life can be like. There are plenty of awkward dinner parties hosted by Mrs. Richards to gawk at. There’s the stifling effect of small town life that keeps everybody marching in close step. There’s the maddening dependence of the women on their husbands, who control their lives, including where they live and for how long. There’s also the enforcement of the 1950s’ strict moral code, with the added feature of everybody watching everybody else closely. And, most of all, there’s the loneliness, especially when husbands get deployed away from home for long stretches of time.

All of these things afflict Nat, who, in flashbacks, readers learn doesn’t quite fit the mold of the ideal Fifties woman, and certainly not the married woman. She forms a close friendship with a local, Esrom, who himself reciprocates by not only helping her with chores, lending her a car when she ruins the transmission on Paul’s, but who also ingratiates himself to the Collier’s little girls and, most importantly, supplies Nat with something she desperately needs: true companionship with a man interested in her. Though both, particularly Nat, come close to making the relationship more than it is, it remains sexually innocent. Regardless, when the community gets whiff of it and it reaches Paul up in Greenland, Nat’s life becomes much more difficult.

Upon Paul’s return, domestic strife ensues. However, even more dangerous to the family’s well being, the feared critical incident at the CR-1 reactor becomes reality. It’s here that Williams draws upon true events, the steam explosion and meltdown of the SL-1 (Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One) reactor at the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station outside of Idaho Falls. This event occurred on January 3, 1961. Official reports cited operator error as the cause, though Williams, as others, credit the problem to the design flaws Paul rages about. Williams also includes another controversy, that being whether one of the operators intentionally raised the nine rod purposefully, which Paul adamantly debunks. For more, you can watch the official report on the SR-1 excursion.

All in all, a very good novel with something for everybody. w/c

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