Eleanor Jette's memoir, Inside Box 1663, has been on my "someday" reading list for years, so I was delighted to discover a copy for sale recently. My family moved to Los Alamos in 1951, after the town had been tamed and civilized. I've always been fascinated by the town's roots in the wild early days of the Manhattan Project, and I've read piles of books about those few brief years. As I flipped through the first few pages, I was instantly hooked. Even though I knew most of the material, Jette's voice is so candidly compelling and her decades old account sounds so fresh that I could not put it down.
Even though I knew most of the material, she included many points I had not heard before, and her perspective lent new significance to many things I had heard. For example, other accounts implied that wives knew little or nothing of what was going on. Jette shrewdly assembled shreds of clues from random conversations, applied her knowledge of geography, and correctly predicted the location of Los Alamos, the nature of the work, and the location of the final test. Her account makes it clear that she was not the only spouse skilled at reading between the lines, but they didn't discuss it openly, and none posed the least security risk.
The book is brilliantly written. She never wavers in her commitment to tell her story from her personal point of view, but she includes frequent passages of dialogue documenting the thoughts of others. She candidly documents her assessment of conditions, decisions, and events, and she seamlessly incorporates regular, concise summaries of the state of the war. In the Introduction she states "This is my story only in so far as I happen to be the participating observer. It is the story of the lives of men and women who lived and worked in grim secrecy to hasten the end of the war...We were all part of it, whether we served in the Laboratories or in the homes." Although she was initially encouraged to use her chemistry background to contribute to the research effort, she chose to remain at home with her son. Her specific focus was that of a housewife who took an active role in shaping this historic community during its most profoundly significant and challenging years.
At a juncture when the art of writing memoir has evolved to a point where much of the focus seems to shifting toward the spiritual transformation and emotionally healing aspect of the process, Jette's book stands as a beacon to remind us of the importance of memoir in documenting history from personal perspective, of bringing introspection and reflection to bear on shaping the story of times and places as part of our collective history. While much has been written about the scientific aspects of the Manhattan Project and about the lives of the Big Name scientists and their wives, much less has been said about living conditions and family life for ordinary families sucked into its shroud of silence and austere conditions. Jette shines a bright beacon into this darkness.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the memoir is the history of the book itself. Jette finished the first draft of the manuscript in 1949 while it was still vivid and fresh in her memory, and she completed the final draft nearly a decade later while living in Tuxedo, New York. She died in 1964 at the age of 57, and the manuscript remained unpublished until 1977. When the Los Alamos Historical Society indicated an interest in publishing it, her son and his wife sent it to press. It's a stunning example of work that may not come of age within the author's lifespan, but becomes significant much later. May all who feel the urge to write memoir take heed and heart!
Eleanor Jette was born in Denver in 1907. In 1943 she and her husband Eric were living an ordinary middle-class life in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. That all changed dramatically when they accepted the challenge of moving to the Secret City of Los Alamos, New Mexico shortly after the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Jette took an active part in the community and chronicles daily life for the wives and mothers who lived there. She and her husband stayed for five years before moving back to New York. They returned to Los Alamos where they spent the last few years of their lives. She died in 1964, thirteen years before this manuscript was published by the Los Alamos Historical Society in collaboration with her son.
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