Being a military wife is a tough job. Being a military wife whose husband is assigned to a poorly constructed reaction in the middle of a cover up is even worse. Being a military wife with a husband in that situation who is then sent to Greenland is the worst. The fact that the military wife in this situation, the protagonist of Andria Williams’s The Longest Night, also has to contend with being pregnant and the close, almost Puritanical scrutiny of the other military wives puts her beyond even the superlative.
The longest night in question is January 3, 1961, when the reactor Paul Collier was assigned to goes critical and kills three men. CR-1 (based on the real SL-1) was in bad shape for two years before it blew up. Paul and his colleagues knew it was in bad shape, but the Master Sergeant in charge of the small site was covering up how bad it was so that he could eke out one more promotion to cap off a lackluster career. The disaster was just a matter of time. When Paul tries to have it out with his Master Sergeant, he ends up punching the man full in the face. His reward is to be shipped off to an army base in Greenland for six months.
This drama, exciting though it is, is often background to the drama conjured up by Paul’s wife, Nat. Nat is lonely in Idaho Falls. Paul works eight hour shifts 50 miles away, often taking the car. Though she has two bouncing little girls (with another on the way) to care for, she longs for adult conversation and the freedom to go off on adventures when she gets bored. Perhaps it’s the fact that she got married at 19 and never went to college, never held a job, but I felt that Nat had a lot of growing up to do. She went straight from daughter to wife to mother. When Paul gets shipped to Greenland, Nat is stranded in the middle of a group of military wives who take their duty to their husband very seriously (or at least keep up appearances in the case of the Master Sergeant’s wife). Nat’s drama really heats up when she befriends a local jack-of-all trades. Esrom is kind. He’s thoughtful. Most importantly, he’s around while Paul is absent. It’s little wonder that Nat leans on him for companionship and comfort.
The Longest Night switches back and forth between Paul and Nat’s perspectives. Paul is torn between his job and his duty to keep everyone safe and the rumors about Nat’s friendship with Esrom. Nat is torn between her inchoate desires for some kind of fulfillment, her husband, and her friend. (I keep saying friend because Nat and Esrom never have an affair.) The Colliers are clearly mismatched. When the click, their divergent personalities compliment each other. When something is off, it seems like the pair are careering towards divorce.
I picked up The Longest Night because of my own history. My dad was in the Navy for years, often deployed for months at a time. (He brought back amazing gifts, though. Thanks, Dad!) My mom was incredibly tough raising me, my sister, and my brother while dad was at sea. For a while, the family and I lived in Idaho Falls in a little yellow and brown house a lot like Nat’s while my dad worked at “the Site,” Idaho National Labratory, a nuclear training facility out in the Arco desert. I remember my dad telling us the story about SL-1 when we were old enough to understand what radiation was. While I was reading The Longest Night, I soaked up every detail about Idaho Falls in the early 1960s that I could find. I know what the LDS temple and the falls actually look like.
All that said, I don’t know that I would have liked The Longest Night as much as I did if I hadn’t had so many connections to the setting and the characters’ roles. The parts I enjoyed the most were the ones focused on Paul and CR-1. (I’m afraid I shared the perspective of Nat’s peers most of the time: I just wanted her to grow up. She’s terribly naive for most of the book. I had little time for her inability to figure out what she really wanted out of life. Having grown up with tough, brave parents leaves me little patience for people like Nat Collier.) This was one of the most interesting reading experiences I’ve had for a while.