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In 1941, at seventeen years old, Meridian begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago. She is soon drawn to Alden Whetstone, a brilliant, complicated physics professor who opens her eyes to the fundamentals and poetry of his field, the beauty of motion, space and time, the delicate balance of force and energy that allows a bird to fly.
Entranced and in love, Meridian defers her own career path and follows Alden west to Los Alamos, where he is engaged in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb). In married life, though, she feels lost and left behind. She channels her academic ambitions into studying a particular family of crows, whose free life and companionship are the very things that seem beyond her reach. There in her canyons, years later at the dawn of the 1970s, with counterculture youth filling the streets and protests against the war rupturing college campuses across the country, Meridian meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and together they seek ways to mend what the world has broken.
Exquisitely capturing the claustrophobic eras of 1940s and 1950s America, The Atomic Weight of Love also examines the changing roles of women during the decades that followed. And in Meridian Wallace we find an unforgettable heroine whose metamorphosis shows how the women’s movement opened up the world for a whole generation.
A NOVEL BY
OF CHAPEL HILL
To Frances Salman Koenig,
this novel's strongest champion,
To my brother Alan A. Church,
for his steadfastness.
How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected?
—CHARLES DARWIN, On the Origin of Species
Los Alamos is in a restricted airspace reservation covered by an Executive order, dated May 23, 1950. This airspace cannot be penetrated except by authority of the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission]. Historically permission has been refused except for the chartered [AEC flights of official visitors and project personnel].
—from the report of the Hearing before the Subcommittee on Communities of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress of the United States, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session on Community Problems at Los Alamos, December 7, 1959
A Parliament of Owls
A Watch of Nightingales
A Party of Jays
A Tidings of Magpies
A Descent of Woodpeckers
A Charm of Hummingbirds
A Murmuration of Starlings
A Pod of Meadowlarks
A Kettle of Hawks
An Exaltation of Larks
A Deceit of Lapwings
An Unkindness of Ravens
A Murder of Crows
A Fall of Woodcocks
A Flight of Sparrows
About the Author
In early January of 2011, forty-five hundred red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the Arkansas skies. A few days later, five hundred more birds plummeted to earth, and their broken bodies covered an entire quarter-mile stretch of the highway near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Some thought that one bird, confused by bad weather, led the others to their deaths; others blamed pesticides. I suspect there were also those who felt God had struck the birds from the sky in some sort of apocalyptic fever. Eventually, wildlife experts determined that the birds had died of blunt force trauma. Startled by the explosion of celebratory New Year's fireworks, the birds—who had poor night vision—flew into power lines, telephone poles, houses, mailboxes, and tree branches. Our exuberance killed them.
I'm watching the birds, still. Paying attention, observant—ever the ornithologist. Stories such as these keep me awake at night when I cannot escape the beating of my eighty-seven-year-old heart, the constancy of it, the weariness of it. I cannot say with scientific certainty how many times over these many decades it kept or deviated from its rhythm, how many times it catapulted with love or capitulated in grief. Maybe Alden could have calculated those numbers for me. Across the universes of so many academic blackboards he flung like stardust numbers and symbols, the language of mathematics and the elegant formulae of physics. He dissected unseen worlds, galaxies I could only begin to imagine. One of the scientists who created the first atomic bomb, Alden knew the weight of invisible neutrons, could predict the flight paths of escaping electrons. He could conceive of the existence of such phantasms and then release their formidable, destructive power.
But Alden never knew how to measure the weight of a sigh. He could not predict the moment when the petal of a spent rose would release and descend. Alden could not tell me when a screech owl would cry out from a darkened pine bough outside my bedroom window and insinuate itself into my dreams.
I first loved him because he taught me the flight of a bird, precisely how it happens, how it is possible. Lift. Wing structure and shape, the concepts of wing loading, drag, thrust. The perfectly allotted tasks of each differently shaped feather. The hollowness of bones to reduce weight, to overcome gravity. I was too young to realize that what I really yearned to know was why birds take flight—and why, sometimes, they refuse.
This is not Oppenheimer's story. It is not that of Edward Teller or Niels Bohr, Fermi or Feynman. This is not the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, or of Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb. It is not even Alden's story. Someone else has told their stories—will tell their stories. This is my story, the story of a woman who accompanied the bomb's birth and tried to fly in its aftermath.
A Parliament of Owls
1. A solitary, nocturnal bird of prey characterized by its small beak and wide face.
2. A farsighted bird, the owl cannot clearly see anything within a few centimeters of its face.
He was a giant of a man. You had to be, to win on the battlefield. Over six foot seven inches tall. A mountain of a Scotsman." My father held the carving knife suspended in the air over a Sunday roast chicken. "Brown, curly hair, piercing eyes that could spot treachery and deceit one hundred yards away." He freed a drumstick. "Meridian, pass me your plate."
I felt relieved. Sometimes Daddy purposefully denied me a piece of dark meat; he thought I should learn to make do with whatever was offered. Caught up in his Scottish lore, he must have forgotten for a moment about building my character.
"Guns are a great equalizer. You don't have to be physically strong to shoot someone, not like close-quarter combat," he continued. "Wallace had to be a true warrior. Still, he carried a Psalter with him, knew the psalms of David by heart, even quoted them as the English tortured and killed him."
"Grahame, no. Stop now." My mother forced his gaze to meet hers across the supper table.
"Why would he carry salt?" Eight years old, I was wholly enamored of my father and his stories.
"They're facts, Jennie. Meridian shouldn't be afraid of facts. That's life." My father turned to me. "A book of psalms, not salt."
"He took a book?"
Fingering the salt shaker rather than passing it my direction, my mother interrupted him again. "No. No dirks. No broadaxes or longbows. We're not going to list the ways in which William Wallace was tortured. Not at Sunday dinner."
A high school history teacher with thinning brown hair and a deep cleft chin, my father loved outlandish tales of wildly self-destructive Scottish courage and the brilliant defeat of the English by Wallace during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Grahame Alan Wallace could not prove it, but he was certain we were descended from Scotland's greatest hero, a man whose unconventional tactics let the Scots win against all odds. Stirling Bridge. 1297. My father hammered those facts into me, a litany more powerful than any I ever heard in Sunday school.
"God comes in handy in a war, that's why he carried the book of psalms," my mother pronounced, tugging at the cuff of her sleeve. She made all of our clothes then. It was 1932, and the Great Depression was heavy upon us. To my enduring shame, I had to wear a neighbor girl's dresses made over by my mother to fit me. My soft, fine, dark blonde hair hung lank to my chin, just the tips curling inward, as if seeking protection beneath the angle of my jaw. Omnipresent dark shadows dwelt beneath my eyes, maybe because when I could get away with it I stayed up late into the night, reading.
"God picks sides?" I asked.
"Is one side in a war always right and the other wrong, is that why God picks sides?"
"This is what your conversational topics are doing to us, Grahame." My mother held out her plate for her serving of chicken.
"Brave men win wars, Meridian. And God makes men brave." My father lay to rest the carving knife, along with his favorite topic. "Now, your mother wants to discuss other matters. You choose."
"Oh, birds! I choose birds." I maneuvered my peas to the side so that they wouldn't contaminate any of the good food on my plate.
"Such as the one you're eating?" My father teased, waving a fork loaded with tender chicken in my direction. "Don't you just love birds?" he said, sighing like a girl in love.
"Daaaaddy," I pleaded, and he laughed, closed his eyes in mock rapture as he chewed.
I looked at my plate, my love of birds battling with my salivary glands.
"Don't torture your only child," my mother said, accurately reading my consternation. "Go ahead and eat your chicken, honey."
"I'm not torturing her. She's asking questions about the morality of war, right and wrong. She's a smart girl, capable of resolving this dilemma for herself." My father's rigorous expectations permitted no softness—nothing he viewed as weakness. I owed all amelioration of his stringencies to my mother's compassion, her sensitive barometer.
"She's a very smart girl," Mother smiled at me. "Very," she said, this time smiling at my father, who then winked at me.
I bit into the drumstick, my hunger having won the battle.
ONE CHRISTMAS, MY PARENTS put a precious, rare orange in my stocking, along with a wooden pencil box. The other kids in my Greensburg, Pennsylvania elementary classroom had long showed off their pencil boxes, with lids that slid perfectly open and closed, and I had so longed for one—in those days, in my family, an outright extravagance. The box was made of pecan wood—smooth beneath my awestruck fingertips, with the sharp scent of varnish. My mother then took me to purchase the rest of my gift: a pair of Educator shoes from Kinney Shoes on Main Street. An advertisement in the store's front window featured a black and white drawing of two children with schoolbooks and lunch pails, and the caption: LETS THE CHILD'S FOOT GROW AS IT SHOULD. My father taught me how to polish and buff the deep chestnut leather, and then it became my job to polish his shoes as well on Saturday nights, before Sunday morning services.
My parents knew better than to give me dolls—something that held no appeal for me, but that seemingly every single one of my friends shamelessly coveted. I felt no affinity for long-lashed glass eyes that stared blankly or miniature outfits with tiny buttons and bows, and I didn't want to feed them or change diapers. Dimpled, stiff dolls couldn't converse with me, not in the way I longed to talk. And my true love was nature, the outdoors. There, in the solemn patience of a doe or the swift flight of birds, I found the kind of companionship that made me wonder, that challenged me.
When I was ten years old, my father gave me The Burgess Bird Book for Children. In the book's precious color plates I discovered open-beaked Carol, the Meadow Lark, with a black bib over his yellow chest; Chippy the Chipping Sparrow, Sammy Jay, and Speckles the Starling. I would take the book down to the fields by the train tracks at the edge of our neighborhood, and there I would lie in the grass, smell the fecund earth, and cradle my head on an arm while reading. Trains would rumble past, clouds of tiny flies would aggravate me, and eventually Daddy would be sent to bring me back for chores and supper. I had to sweep both porches, front and back, and it was my job to dust Mother's hand-painted china cups and saucers. While I worked, I would go over the various bird attributes in my head: beak lengths, feather coloration, foraging behaviors, and nesting composition—all in preparation for much-anticipated questioning by my father.
That's where my career as an ornithologist began—at the dinner table, beside the train tracks, in the late-night hours while my parents slept and I read lying in the empty bathtub. When I found a dead goldfinch on the walk home from school, my father applied the balm of Darwin to my broken heart. I had On the Origin of Species in hand by my eleventh birthday.
SIX MONTHS LATER, I awoke to my mother's frantic voice as she begged my father to awaken. He did not. He was dead of a massive heart attack at age forty-three.
It was impossible that the exuberance that had been my father—his riotous laughter, his dogged perseverance of knowledge and truth—had simply dissipated. Where did all of that energy go? Vaporized, maybe—but into what, and where? What happened to the bounty of his being, his love for us, for me?
I tried to remember every second of my last exchange with him—the good-night peck, the tingle of his whiskers against my cheek, his breath scented with onions. The times he'd let me climb onto his lap and circle his neck with my arms, before he began telling me I was too heavy, when I held my breath hoping to be less burdensome. I closed my small fists about the memory of his telling me how soft my hair was, that if he weren't careful, he might fall into the waters of my blue eyes.
It was the first time in my life my heart crumpled, caved in on itself. I developed stomach pains that kept me up at night, pains no doctor properly diagnosed as intense, internalized grief. My mother would let me crawl into what had been their bed, now her lonesome bed, and despite her own deep misery she would stroke the hair at my temples, a small gesture that eased the pain enough to let me sleep. Mother was my ballast. She held fast—to life, to me.
In the wake of my father's death, I found focus and meaning in schoolwork. I doubled and tripled my efforts to be the best. Math was perfection—for me, it flowed and held a hint of magical, unseen worlds and concepts. I kept my pencils sharp, gloried in writing out neat algebraic equations and discovering the hidden values of x, y, and z. My teachers conferred, and when I was twelve they gave me a few intense tutorials and then promoted me a year ahead in math classes. I felt odd, singled out, the object of conjecture and some envy among my classmates, but I could also see the pride in my mother's face, imagine my father's hearty approval.
Primarily, though, I cared about science—deciduous versus evergreen, monozygotic versus dizygotic twins, and the colors of Mendel's pea plants. When I finished high school, I knew the world would only get bigger for me, that I would be challenged to comprehend the exquisite perfection of adaptation; the myriad, vast ways in which living organisms achieve life and death.
HOW MANY STRANGERS' TOILETS did my mother scrub, how many floors, how many linens did she launder to supplement my meager scholarship to the University of Chicago? At age seventeen, I was a younger-than-average college freshman in the fall of 1941, buoyed by my mother's faith in me, and I set about obtaining a biology degree with a focus on avian studies, and a plan to earn an advanced degree in ornithology.
The whole enterprise was far bolder than I. I concealed fears: near-certainty of my dire lack of qualifications and absolute certainty of my inability to fit in. The first day of classes, I rushed between buildings, the heavy, costly textbooks in the book bag bouncing off of my hip. In a gloomy, bell-jar-lined classroom in the zoology building, I sat near the front and watched men—all men—file in to join me. A few of them met my eyes, smiled tentatively. I saw clean-shaven cheeks and starched shirts, hastily tied Windsor knots. Some nodded, but none sat next to me.
Instead, they filled the back rows, as if to warn the professor that he'd have to work for their attention. I wondered if I should temper my eagerness, but I could not bear the thought of wasting a morsel of what was offered. I tugged at the collar of my plain, white blouse while two fraternity brothers sat behind me.
"What do you think?"
"Who else? She has great eyes."
"Maybe still waters run deep."
"Not with that one."
I soon learned that my classmates preferred to entangle themselves with sophisticated sorority girls whose teeth were perfectly aligned and whose clothes had not recently hung on the racks of a second-hand store. Girls who were fun. I told myself I didn't mind. They left me alone to prove my mother's efforts were not in vain.
On weekends I lived in the musty rooms of the Field Museum, letting my mind wander through the library's collections of botanical and natural history illustrations, focusing on evolutionary biological contexts. Through the museum windows, I watched the fall leaves, puzzling over why it seemed that the last leaf on the tip of a limb was usually the first to change color. Did the tree pull back its sap from the limbs first, focusing its energy at the core? If a leaf's change is due to a reduction in chlorophyll, to altered light duration, why would the leaf on the end of the limb turn first? And why didn't the entire tree follow that pattern with leaves turning in order, from limb-tip to trunk? Why instead would the remaining leaves turn in a random fashion?
To question, to ponder, to ask, and to learn. Education was my drug of choice—classrooms, books, lectures, pushing myself to understand. Forever trying to win my father's approval, never quite grasping the fact that a dead man cannot applaud.
Through those same windows, I watched the first snowfall begin as a light, dry powder and morph into those luscious, fat, lazy flakes that sashay downward and accumulate into weighty drifts. Once, I stood shivering in a neighbor's yard, reluctant to frighten away a dark, rough-legged hawk that sat atop a wooden picket fence, huddled and motionless while snow blanketed him in disguise. His humped shoulders beneath the white shroud made me think of old men on park benches, waiting for someone or something to move them from their torpor. On my walks between Mrs. Hudson's boarding house and the campus, the snow sifted in over the tops of my galoshes, melting into rivulets that pooled, lukewarm, beneath the soles of my feet. My legs, clad only in thin stockings beneath my skirts, were red and numb by the time I reached the school buildings. Radiators clinked and hissed, and windows fogged. The stars were bits of ice in cold, clear skies.
At night, I closed my eyes in my narrow single bed and prayed a godless prayer of gratitude for every moment, every opportunity of each day.
EVEN IN CLOISTERED ACADEMIA, we knew the war was coming. With Germany threatening to blur all recognized lines in Europe, it was clear the United States would be compelled to fight. In the evenings after dinner, I joined the other boarders to sit in Mrs. Hudson's parlor drinking coffee, darning socks, and listening to the radio's news programs. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, we were all in a state of shock. As much as we'd known that Great Britain was vulnerable, the idea that America—all the way across the Pacific—was exposed to attack . . . well, it was incomprehensible. We listened to a recitation of the numbers of dead, the horrendous loss of ships and planes. Four days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S., and the U.S. replied with declarations of war against Germany and Italy.
It was like a stealthy fire, one that glows quietly, secretively, for ages, and then whoosh!—is suddenly ablaze. When I looked at maps in the newspaper, talked with other students in the commons, heard the boasts of boys not yet war-torn, all I could think was conflagration.
And yet, we attended classes, professors lectured. We still laughed. We still fell in love.
He leaned on the lab countertop, fingered a glass beaker, and said, "There's a dance on Saturday."
It was Jerome Bloom, my biology lab partner. Jerome. Jerry. Jer! Why did he think he needed to tell me about the school social calendar? It didn't even enter my mind that he might be asking me out. I reached into the pocket of my lab coat for my mechanical pencil.
"Are you going?" he asked.
"Oh, I doubt it. Those things really aren't for me." I delicately sandwiched a drop of pond water between two glass slides and slid them beneath the microscope lens.
"You don't like to dance?"
"I love to dance. I really do. It's just that . . ." I looked through the eyepiece, began adjusting the focus.
He waited until he could tell I wasn't going to add anything more.
"Meridian, you should get out more, meet more people. Have some fun."
"I suppose I should, Mother Dear."
"Just come with me. Let me take you."
"On a date?" I gave up trying to focus on the slide and looked up at him.
"Is that too awful to contemplate?"
It wasn't awful. I just couldn't believe he'd ask me. What I knew about Jerome was that he was making his way through the girls in the nursing department. I'd seen him walking the campus sidewalks, and I'd noticed his carefully pomaded hair, his houndstooth checked jacket and—the true Jer! on-the-make touch—his red and white polka-dotted tie. He was a bit on the short side, but with a speedy walk that reminded me of a frantic piston. His lips were plump and sensual, and he wore wireless eyeglasses so that nothing obscured the breadth of his brown eyes. He was way out of my league.
"Don't tell me you have to wash your hair. None of those fake excuses." He touched my elbow. "If you don't like it, I'll walk you home. Safe and sound."
I'd heard he was a good dancer. He knew how to lead so that even the clumsiest of girls could follow.
"Oh, all right. Yes. Yes, I'll go to the dance with you on Saturday." He let go of my elbow. "Now, if you don't mind, let's get back to the paramecium." I bent over the microscope once more and hid my smile behind a curtain of hair.
"You say the naughtiest things," he said, his low baritone an intimate whisper. I felt the frisson of fear and adrenaline I'd read about in my purloined copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. I was way out of my league. Way.
KITTY, ONE OF MY FELLOW BOARDERS, conspired with Mrs. Hudson to tutor me a few evenings before my date.
"What do you plan to talk about?" Kitty asked over the dinner table.
I reached for the butter dish. "Talk about?"
"Conversation," Mrs. Hudson piped in.
"I don't know. Whatever comes up."
"No no no!" Kitty let out an exasperated sigh. "No wonder you have trouble getting dates."
"I'm not here to date."
"You can do both, dear," Mrs. Hudson said. "Learn and find a husband."
The lamp behind Kitty turned her frizzy red hair into a thick halo of bright copper wire. She put down her silverware, leaving the gravy on her pork chop to congeal. "You can't just talk about any old thing, Meri. Knowing you, you'll end up lecturing him about the composition of eagles' nests or the migration patterns of some obscure bird species."
"What's wrong with that? He's in my biology class."
"You have to flatter them," Mrs. Hudson said, blowing a strand of hair from her forehead. "Pick a topic they know, something they like talking about."
"Which is biology," I said with a degree of certainty I hoped would put an end to the conversation. "Why are you two ganging up against me?" I teased and took a bite of carrot.
"Because . . . well . . ." Kitty looked to Mrs. Hudson.
"You could use a little help when it comes to flirting."
"We're not joking."
"Mrs. H is right. You have to ask him about things he knows, let him know you're interested. To hook him, I mean."
I closed my eyes briefly.
"Ask him questions you know he can answer—let him think he's smarter than you," Mrs. Hudson said, and took a sip from her water glass.
"Yeah, you scare them away with your brains."
"Oh, honestly." I wiped my mouth and got ready to push back my chair and retrieve the coffee pot from the stove. "You two want for me to lie, to pretend I'm stupid so that some man will like me? Maybe Jerry likes me precisely because I am smart."
I saw them exchange another look. "Oh," Mrs. Hudson said.
"You are intimidating, Meri, whether you know it or not," Kitty said. "You're not exactly approachable. Just make sure you prop up Jerry's ego a bit, that's all we're saying."
“A tightly crafted novel.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Church's absorbing debut novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man . . . We see it all through the prism of Meridian Wallace Whetstone, a woman ahead of her time.” —Bookreporter.com
“Inspiring, empowering, and heartbreaking in turn.” —The Roanoke Times
“Church’s debut will likely strike a chord, especially with women who find that not much has changed in our patriarchal society since Meri’s time, and that Meri’s story might well be their own.” —Booklist
“Church's debut novel explores the relationship between sacrifice and love . . . Each sentence drives the plot further, exploring love's limits and its spoils. But it's Church's exploration of Meridian's role in her relationships that is the most gracefully executed feat of the novel. Meridian's voice is poignant, a mixture of poetry and observation . . . An elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Church hits the mark in this emotionally driven debut that spans the chapters of a long life . . . What does love require of us? How does one strike a balance between compromise and self‑fulfillment? In her debut novel, Church writes to these issues in a style that is thoughtful and elegant.” —Library Journal
“Oh, what an incandescent debut! Church follows one extraordinary woman, who is brave to enough to challenge the times, take defiant wing, and chart her own extraordinary flight path. So engrossing, I couldn’t wait to read another page, and so alive, I never wanted the story to end.” —Caroline Leavitt, author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
“This exquisite debut is the beautifully written story of a woman who must negotiate the tricky terrain of love, responsibility, ambition and sacrifice. In her impeccable portrayal of a long marriage, Elizabeth Church weaves together the historical and the personal and shows the impossible choices women faced--and still face--between family and self.” —Tara Conklin, author of The House Girl
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Algonquin Books