Trigger warning for rape and self-harm.
Mildred Groves lives through a modern version of a classic story that always found particularly tragic: the story of Cassandra. Mildred has a gift–and a curse–inherited from her grandmother. Her ability to see the future (usually horrible, untimely deaths) is never taken seriously by the people she reveals it to. Some people just credit her with an active imagination. More often, people call her crazy. The ones who are really freaked out by Mildred call her a witch. In The Cassandra, the astonishingly beautiful and moving novel by Sharma Shields, we watch Mildred as she attempts to find independence in the wide world before events and her visions lead to her downfall.
Mildred’s mother uses Mildred’s naïveté and guilty conscience to keep the young woman at home. Mildred once snapped in anger and grief and pushed her mother down an embankment and into a small river. Ever since, her mother has preyed upon Mildred to keep her daughter as a servant and nurse rolled up in one. I’m not sure what Mildred would have done if she hadn’t had a vision of herself working at the Hanford Site, in Washington, where plutonium was enriched for the first atomic bombs. Of course, Mildred has no idea what the government is doing at Hanford. It’s all very hush-hush; all she knows is that they are all doing vital war work to stop Hitler.
All that comes later, however. For the first few months at Hanford, Mildred is happy. She has a wonderful friend who protects her from the attentions of the bolder men at the site. There’s also a sweet young man who falls head over heels for Mildred. Mildred’s boss is pleased with her diligence as his secretary. Even when Mildred starts to sleepwalk (into the Columbia River at one point and into a freezing snowstorm at another) and she starts to have terrible visions of people who have been burned, sickened, and killed by a mysterious weapon, Mildred maintains her equanimity. Meanwhile, her wonderful friend and her boss, start to wonder about her sanity when she tells them what she sees. No one believes her that the weapon they are working on will be more destructive than they imagine. When things go wrong for Cassandra, er, Mildred, they go really, really wrong. The last third of the book is absolutely harrowing.
What struck me most about Mildred was her out-of-syncness with the people around her. She is, at least at the beginning of the novel, as patriotic as any of them. She even hopes that she might finally snag a husband; women are vastly outnumbered at Hanford and she might find a man who doesn’t mind her oddities. But she also thinks about the injustice of how Native Americans have and their land repeatedly stolen, about the environment, about racial violence, and other topics in social justice that are just not on the radar for white people in the mid-1940s. Mildred is so deeply connected to the natural world around her that she calls the wind a she and tells people that the constant windiness doesn’t mean any harm. Mildred’s inability to communicate any of her thoughts to the people around me only served to remind me of who helpless the original Cassandra must have felt when she had bad news to deliver. No one wants to hear that they are messing up the planet and causing unspeakable violence.
Shields writing—and Mildred’s thoughtfulness about the world around her—kept me glued to the pages. I realize that my description here and the trigger warning above make The Cassandra sound like a relentlessly upsetting book. There are definitely depressing things in its pages, but there is so much in this book to think about in terms of voice and voicelessness, retribution, and the environment that I can only describe this book as a gift. The Cassandra languished on my to-read list for far too long. I highly recommend this book. No matter what kind of book you like, read The Cassandra.