Book Review of 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos

I enjoyed 109 East Palace, and a lot of other people have too.  Robert Oppenheimer was a scientist who grew into the role of masterminding what went on at the place he chose for the ultra-secret research that ultimately led to the creation of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why he chose the remote and difficult-to-access mesa is one of the questions the book addresses. In part, it was because he loved the region and already owned a retreat nearby with his brother. Also, the government took over the buildings of a school that was already there, giving a head start to the creation of the secret city. Oppie, as he was often called, fascinated people, and women tended to fall for him despite his being married.

Here is a link to the book:

I was actually even more fascinated by Dorothy McKibbin than I was by the more famous Oppenheimer. She was a widow with a son who lived in Santa Fe. She had been there as a young woman with tuberculosis, living at a sanitarium called Sunmount. it was unusual in letting the patients go out around the town, and as a result Dorothy had gotten to know Santa Fe very well. Later, after she recovered and returned back east, she married and had her son Kevin, but sadly her husband died. After reflection, she ended up moving to Santa Fe with Kevin and working there.

I was in Los Alamos myself, and it was there that I learned to walk, but that’s another story. Because of my roots, I read the book avidly. My maternal grandfather was a mathematical physicist, and he was invited to go, like countless other physicists. He took his wife, who was my grandmother, and also their daughter, who was my mother. I was so young that naturally I went along. Grandpa (Chester Snow)  is not mentioned in the book, and of course I’m not either.

It’s written by Jennet Conant, a very good writer and researcher and a granddaughter of James B. Conant, one of the more famous scientists involved in the invention of the atomic bomb.

But back to what the book tells us of Dorothy McKibbin. Like so many women, she was enchanted by Oppenheimer. When she was offered the job of working closely with him in a small and easy-to-overlook cluster of offices at 109 East Palace, she took the job willingly. It turned out to be a job she was well suited for, as she was calm and she knew many people in the area. She did have to be secretive about what she was doing, but she became good at that.

At first, she often met the scientists and their families at the train station at Lamy. Not much housing was ready at Los Alamos, and due to knowing the region well, she was able to place the newcomers in a variety of locations, from resorts to whatever else she could find.

Her job expanded to include a wide variety of tasks, all under the cloak of security that shaped everything. She had to make paper passes so the scientists could have access to the mesa. Once they settled into the inadequate housing there, she helped them with many requests, even to finding a particular kind of dog. Later, she ended up hosting several weddings at her home in Santa Fe.

While the plan from the start was for Los Alamos to be a research center for creating the bomb, this was kept under wraps, even from many of the people at Los Alamos. In the later part of the book, the drama mounts as preparations are hastened and the first bomb is tested elsewhere in New Mexico. This part had me so absorbed that I couldn’t stop reading for hours.

Here’s a link again to the book. You might be able to find it in a public library as well.

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