Monday, February 27, 2017

Command the Morning by Pearl S. Buck

The making of the atomic bomb
Pearl S. Buck won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature after having published only two novels, East Wind: West Wind and The Good Earth. In the decade that followed, she completed a string of compelling novels set in Asia, which stand as her best known works. Later in her career, however, she branched out into all manner of subject matter to become a sort of all-purpose historical novelist along the lines of James Michener. The results of this diverse late-career output are hit and miss, but fortunately Command the Morning, published in 1959, is one of the hits.

The book is a historical novel about the making of the first atomic bomb. Buck does not use the real Manhattan Project scientists as characters, but creates her own fictional physicists. Real scientists like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr are mentioned in passing, but don’t play an active part in the story. The only genuine personage who actually becomes a minor character in the narrative is Enrico Fermi. Political figures like FDR and Truman are also discussed, but only indicated by euphemistic nicknames like The Big Boss and The Little Boss, respectively. The story takes place at scientific installations and government sites in Chicago, New Mexico, Tennessee, Washington, DC, Washington State, and Japan.

The novel opens at the beginning of World War II. A reliable means of nuclear fission has yet to be achieved, but the Nazis are rumored to be developing an atomic bomb, and the American government wants to beat them to it. Burton Hall, the scientist tapped as project leader, is assembling a team of America’s greatest minds in the fields of nuclear physics and atomic energy. His top choice, Stephen Coast, is reluctant to participate due to his pacifist misgivings toward building the ultimate weapon. Among the other candidates for the project, one woman holds her own amongst the top minds in this male-dominated field. Jane Earl is a scientist of rare intelligence and ability, who also happens to be beautiful, so of course all the male characters can’t help but fall in love with her, including the married ones.

About half the time the story focuses on the scientific problem and the characters heroic attempts to solve it. The rest deals with the relationships between the scientists and their wives. When Buck concentrates on the science, the novel is truly riveting. She has obviously done her homework and writes about nuclear physics in a way that demonstrates both an admirable knowledge of the subject and a facility for explaining it to laymen. When the story veers away from the science to focus on the love stories, it is less successful, sometimes veering into the sort of melodrama one might expect from a popular novel of its era. The most trying portions of the novel are the cringeworthy chauvinistic advances Burton Hall makes towards Jane Earl, so loaded with corny machismo you not only feel offended for her but embarrassed for him.

What saves the book from these regrettably antiquated romantic subplots is Buck’s thoughtful philosophical consideration of the monumental events she’s writing about. Towards the end of the book, she really delves into the conflicted ethics of the bomb, and as a result, the novel becomes more and more thought-provoking as you near its conclusion. The Good Earth is still Buck’s greatest novel, and other books like it were her strong suit, but Command the Morning may be the best departure from her beaten path.
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