Published by Random House Publishing Group on January 12th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Women, Fiction, Historical, Literary
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[Paul] It was a moment that had been in the making for a long time; it shouldn’t have been any more horrifying than the ones that had come before. The worst step had already been taken long ago.
Engrossing domestic drama set in the time surrounding the USA’s only fatal nuclear accident. It was more “soapy” than I was expecting, but the characters were well-written and I learned a lot about an event that has largely been forgotten.
[Paul] In his locker he taped a Robert E. Lee quote: “I do not trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.” Amazingly, as the years went by, he won the job, the girl, and an amount of respect that seemed neither stingy nor extravagant: It seemed just right. But like many hard-forced things his veneer was delicate, and he found that he became easily panicked. He’d fought so hard for what he had that he could imagine countless ways it might be taken away.
This book is primarily a domestic drama, bookended by chapters about the events leading up to and following the accident. It was like Army Wives, if it were set in the 1960s. The broken nuclear reactor takes a backseat to the trials of military marriage in the middle of the book.
[Paul] Paul felt a sudden stab of pity for them all. They could die for this nothingness, this shit hole. It was their life, this lifting and sweating and shuffling and dodging, this penning of warnings that no one would read, this making of endless excuses. It was a service no one would love them for, and they were veterans of nothing more than their own blank, tenuous days.
The CR-1 accident in the book is based on the SL-1 accident, the only fatal nuclear power accident in the USA. There was some sensationalism surrounding the original event, but the author handles it respectfully. At the end of this review are some resources I found about the actual accident. After watching some of the old videos, I have to say that the author did an amazing job setting the scene and describing the reactor! Everything looked exactly how I imagined it.
[Nat] “I feel like a piece in a china cabinet, you know? Like I just sit still, waiting for something. Like I haven’t taken a deep breath in years.”
I did love the characters and I got really involved in their stories. Even the small children are realistic! The chapters alternate between three characters: Nat, Paul, and Jeannie. The chapters are long, so you have time to get settled into each character. Nat is a California girl at heart. When she married Paul Collier, she left her beloved San Diego and ocean for a transient military life. The book opens as they and their two toddlers are moving to Idaho Falls, a town whose main claims to fame are a waterfall and a Mormon temple. A brand new J.C. Penney is an exciting event in this town. Nat feels cooped up in the house and is frustrated with her lack of freedom and her husband’s lack of communication. Her husband Paul is a reserved, by-the-books type guy. He has a strong sense of morality and is frustrated by people who don’t live by the same code. Paul feels somewhat guilty about bringing his family to such an isolated area, but his mind is mostly occupied with work issues. Paul works at the CR-1 Reactor, a place where a “can-do attitude” is a substitute for safety. There is a serious problem with the reactor, but management doesn’t want to draw attention to it. On his first day at work, Master Sergeant Mitch Richards urges him to defy his army training and to verbally tell him of reactor irregularities rather than documenting them in the logs. Jeannie is Mitch Richard’s wife and a busybody. She is frustrated with her husband’s drinking and womanizing. Her main goal is to get Mitch to retirement, which is only three years away, so their family can finally have some stability. It is all on her shoulders because he is complacent and not concerned about it one bit! There is also Esrom, a friendly local cowboy, who befriends Nat at her loneliest point.
[Jeannie] Their army life felt like an endless parade in which Mitch was a large, slow-moving float and Jeannie every other performer, running alongside, cheering, shooting off confetti, waving banners and flags, calling attention to his every move as if it were fantastic and exciting and rare.
Jeannie’s chapters were the most comedic. In her opening scene, she is hosting a dinner party and trying to maintain composure as people keep going off the expected script. The way she covertly shames Nat for her dinner contribution was hilariously cruel! “Should we keep passing around those potatoes?” Jeannie managed. “And we have this meatloaf that Nat so kindly brought, but no one’s even taken a slice of it yet.” She held it aloft; one whole olive had slid greasily to the side of the loaf, where it jutted like a wayward nipple.”
The portrayal of the ups-and-downs of Nat and Paul’s marriage was honest. This is a marriage between a free-spirited woman and a straight-laced (though slightly more progressive than most) military man in a very conservative era, so the issues they dealt with felt very real. I could understand both Paul’s struggles to be a good person and fears of losing everything and Natalie’s desperation for freedom and independence. I did get frustrated with Natalie’s willful ignorance regarding her friendship with Esrom! She had romanticized it so much, that she couldn’t even see straight anymore. She was the character that was least reflective of her mistakes because if she thought about it, she would have to make some unwanted changes. View Spoiler »I feel 90% sure that Esrom would have puppy-dogged after her forever, so the permanent distance was for the best for both of them! « Hide Spoiler
[Nat] She was both flattered and embarrassed when he called her his angel. She knew she was supposed to be his angel, because men were inherently unstable and needed a woman’s love the way a pilot needed a compass. Men were the providers and the doers and the protectors of everything—finances, morals, property—and yet there was something off about them, everybody knew it, something that needed to be sheltered from certain realities, such as childbirth or the sight of a woman without support garments. It had always puzzled Nat, this way she was supposed to treat men, because it didn’t seem to fit Paul and it felt foreign to her. And yet they were becoming it, as if it were inevitable. Distance was making them proper, and making her his angel.
I didn’t like the missing girl→creepy youth pastor→Natalie’s teenage years story train. The missing girl part threw me off the most. It kept being mentioned, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. Then it turned out to be a roundabout way to introduce Natalie’s teenage years. I also thought there were a few incidents at the end View Spoiler »(Paul’s breakout and the subsequent car accident) « Hide Spoiler that went too much into crazy high-jinks territory for me, in a story that already has built-in drama. But as far as crazy high-jinks go, it wasn’t too crazy. These are minor things in an overall engrossing story.
The Longest Night is about uncontrolled chain reactions, in more than one sense. One thing leads to another as both the reactor and the tensions in the Collier’s marriage explode. The characters have to make difficult decisions to protect their families and some of those decisions come too late. The book also explores the pressures of late 1950s/early 1960s morality on a marriage in a military setting. It felt stifling to read about these women’s lack of control over their lives and society’s passive acceptance of it. Even though this book is set over 50 years ago, there is still some recognizable behavior! The following quote reminded me of my community Facebook page, though men are also active participants: ” these women were busybodies; their hawk eyes scanned the neighborhood for anything out of place, for any change, for any event that was, by other people’s standards, not an event at all. Someone’s garbage can lid laying to the side and not securely clamped on the can: That was an event. The lone beep of a car horn at two P.M.: That would be considered an event, and a mystery.”
I’d recommend this book to anyone who would like to read a solid story about the ups-and-downs of marriage, but also likes interesting historical settings. Last year I read A Place We Knew Well, where a family drama and a Cold War event reach a breaking point at the same time. I wasn’t as attached to the characters in that book, but it might be worth a read if you are interested in the time period.
Here are the resources about the actual incident I used to verify my visualizations.
1961 Nuclear Reactor Meltdown : The SL-1 Accident – United States Army Documentary (animation at 3:45)
1961 Nuclear Reactor Meltdown : The SL-1 Accident – Educational Documentary
“Prompt Critical” – A Short Film Based on the SL-1 Incident – by James Lawrence Sicard (2013)
Proving the Principle – A History of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 1949-1999 (Chapters 15 and 16 about SL-1 incident)
http://www4vip.inl.gov/publications/ (Chapter 15, page 11, illustration of the reactor)