I’ve Gotten too Comfortable with the Threat of Annihilation

Book Review: ‘The Cassandra’ by Sharma Shields

By Naomi Kimbell

Although I tend to gravitate toward nuance and subtlety in literature, I’ve wanted a black and white story with little to no grey area for a long time. I’ve wanted a character who doesn’t equivocate or beat around the bush. I wanted someone to come right out and say it: humanity is screwed and it’s our own damn fault.

And I got it.

The Cassandra, Sharma Shields’s new novel forthcoming from Henry Holt on February 12, 2019, is what I’ve been waiting for.

Sharma Shields earned an MFA from the University of Montana in 2004, and her previous books include the short story collection, Favorite Monster, and a novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. She’s also the winner of the Washington State Book Award and the Autumn House Prize for Fiction. She lives in Spokane, WA, just a couple hours away from the Hanford nuclear site where The Cassandra is set.

Mildred Groves, The Cassandra’s narrator, suffers the same affliction as the ancient Greek heroine. Youngest daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy, Cassandra had the gift of foresight, but it came with a curse: no one would believe her. Mildred, by contrast, is not a frail and beautiful princess, but ordinary and a little awkward. She shops for shoes in the Sears Roebuck catalog. She loves movies and movie stars; her language is even tinged with a quaint Hollywood vernacular. She comes from a middle-class background and lives in Omak, Washington, with her sickly mother, whom she tends with care but also resents, even hates. And she wants a job. That’s where the novel begins: a job interview, and it is here we first catch an inkling that Mildred is different.

Mildred has graduated top of her class at Omak Secretarial, and she is interviewing for a job at the yet-to-be infamous, Hanford, a top-secret nuclear research and development facility integral to the building of the first atomic bombs. It’s at Hanford that the plutonium is created for deployment in Little Boy and Fat Man, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII. Unbeknownst to her — even those who worked in the reactors were ignorant — Mildred will be part of that project, as a cog, a note-taker, an order-follower, but part of it.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony as I read Shields’s novel, sipping tea from a blue and white mug emblazoned with the Fermilab logo. I visited the Italian physicist’s facility in Geneva, IL last winter. Comfort with the Atomic Age has infiltrated our daily lives, even our coffee mugs. Fermi, a visionary scientist, unleashed sustained energy from uranium through chain reactions in an experiment under a football field at the University of Chicago in 1942. He helped build the bomb, and he makes a brief appearance in the book. Mildred even meets him, although he goes by Mr. Farmer for security. “Loyalty, secrecy, and safety,” as Mildred learns on her first day, are paramount at Hanford. The very survival of the United States is dependent upon them. At least, that’s what she’s told.

Soon after arriving at Hanford, Mildred begins to have visions accompanied by a heron, a coyote, and a rattlesnake. These guides are reminiscent of American Indian mythology, helping to situate the narrative within a specific geographic context: The Eastern Washington desert along the Columbia River from which tribal communities were removed to make way for Hanford. Mildred’s visions often occur at night, causing her to sleepwalk into the sage fields around the Hanford facility, winding her way to the river to experience vivid, nightmarish portends.

Like the novel itself, Mildred’s visions don’t hold back. They feature gut-turning descriptions of the horror and gore that follow a nuclear attack, and there is nothing subtle about them. Like Ibuse’s descriptions of Hiroshima in his novel Black Rain, Shields creates shock and awe through the untempered horror of her imagery. Bodies fill the Columbia River: burned bodies, mutilated bodies, screaming, crying bodies. Death is total and unabashedly horrific and flows from the source: Hanford. Mildred understands that her work, even as a secretary, will help bring about this end, and she also begins to understand that the work is experimental, unnecessary to win the war. Japan was ready to surrender, but the United States wants to demonstrate its power. It is up to her to decide what to do. Like Cassandra, no one will believe her visions, but doing nothing will make her culpable for 100,000 murders.

These are the very conundrums we face right now and why The Cassandra is relevant, in addition to being a good read. Nuclear Armageddon isn’t off the table, but more immediate is the threat of total extinction due to global warming. We are currently standing in that fire, yet many don’t believe the science that tells us the end is near. The message is too like the message of doomsday prophecies; people have been saying the end is coming since people first stood on rocks and proselytized. But we’re fiddling as Rome burns. Perhaps we even use the devastation and subsequent rebirth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of how people can rebuild after total devastation. But what we fail to realize is that, unlike the atom bomb, we have unleashed an energy that is wholly out of our control. We can’t choose where and when it strikes. We can’t modulate the extent of its poison. The Cassandra is nothing less than a warning, a red alert ensconced in a story well-told through the charming and quirky, if sometimes frightening, Mildred Groves.

Sharma Shields will be reading with Richard Fifield at Fact and Fiction in Missoula on February 26th at 7:00 PM.