In her new novel, “The Cassandra,” Sharma Shields brings to life the Manhattan Project, Greek mythology and the World War II hiring binge at Hanford. Here’s an excerpt:
I was at the mercy of the man behind the desk. I needed him to see my future as clearly as I saw it. He held four pink digits aloft, ring finger belted by a fat gold band, and listed off the qualities of the ideal working woman.
“Chaste. Willing. Smart. Silent.”
I swallowed his words, coaxed them into my bloodstream, my bones. I crossed my ankles and pinned my knees together, morphing into the exemplary she.
The man eyed me with prideful ownership. “Frankly, Miss Groves, you’re the finest typist we’ve interviewed. Your speed and efficiency are commendable.”
I opened up my shoulders, smiling. “They named me Star Pupil at Omak Secretarial.”
“You’re not a bad-looking girl, you know that?”
“Thank you. How kind of you.”
“A little large. Plumper than some. But a nice enough face.” The man smoothed open the file on his desk. “Good husband stock at Hanford, Miss Groves. Plenty of men to choose from.”
In my lap my hands shook like tender newborn mice. Such sweet, dumb hands. Calm down, you wild darlings. I focused on the man’s sunburnt face. It reminded me of a worm’s face, sleek, thin-lipped, blunt. He was handsome in a wormish way, or wormish in a handsome way. If I squinted just a little, his head melted into a pink oval smudge.
We spoke in a simple recruiting office in my hometown of Omak, Washington. All of Okanogan County was abuzz with the news of job openings at Hanford. It was like this, too, when they started construction at Grand Coulee Dam. We were patriots. We wanted to throw ourselves into the enterprise. Men and Women, Help Us Win! Work at Hanford Now, the Omak-Okanogan Chronicle urged. I’d snipped out the newspaper article and folded it into my pocketbook, away from Mother’s prying eyes. I was here in secret, and the secrecy delighted me. Goose pimples bubbled up on my forearms and I tapped my fingers across them, tickled by how they transformed my girl flesh into snakeskin.
The room we sat in was crisp and clean, beige-paneled walls, pine floors, plain blue drapes. A war poster hanging behind the recruiter’s worm-head featured a young, attractive woman in uniform, crimson lips, chin nobly lifted, blue eyes snapping and firm, their color enhanced by the stars and stripes rippling behind her.
Her proud expression spoke to me. I’m here, Mildred. I can help you.
I smiled at her. I’m here, too. For you. For all of us.
Aren’t we lucky, her eyes said. If anyone can save them, it’s you.
Above her strong profile it read,
TO MAKE MEN FREE
Enlist in the WAVES Today
“You will share the gratitude of a nation
when victory is ours.”
I, myself, wasn’t joining the WAVES, I was joining the civilian force, the Women’s Army Corps—the WACs—but the work at Hanford was just as crucial for the war effort. With the woman in the illustration I shared a gallant dutifulness. I mimicked her then, holding my chin at the same noble angle, lifting my eyebrows with what I imagined was an arcing grace. I wanted to show the recruiter that I was just as earnest and eager as she was to join the fray.
“You’re squirming,” the man said. He smiled with concern. “Are you uncomfortable?”
I assured him I was fine, just excited, and I lowered my gaze. I wore my only good blouse, cornflower blue, and an old wool skirt, brown. The shoes were Mother’s and pinched my feet. One day I planned to buy my very own pair of wedged heels. I’d circled a black pair in the Sears Christmas catalog that I very much liked. They looked just like the famous movie star Susan Peters’ shoes. When Mother had found the page in the catalog, she scolded me for marking it up with ink.
Once, in downtown Spokane, just after we’d visited our cousins, I saw her—Susan Peters!—walking in a similar pair. She was graceful, athletic. I waved at her and she waved back as though we were dear friends. I wanted to speak to her but Martha, my older sister, pulled me away, telling me I was acting like a starstruck silly boob, and I had better stop it before I did something we’d both regret.
Don’t embarrass me, Martha had hissed. Act normal for once, please.
The recruiter cleared his throat, shuffled the papers on the desk, and continued his summary of the Hanford site. I chided myself for my woolgathering. I fought the urge to slap myself and leaned forward clutching my elbows. I hoped I looked alert and intelligent.
“Hanford is a marvel,” the man said, “nearly seven hundred square miles in size, smack dab on the Columbia River. We started construction last year and we’re darn well near finished, which is a miracle in itself. You’ll see what I mean when you see the size of the units. These are giant concrete buildings. They make your Okanogan County courthouse look like a shoe box. We’ve brought in more than forty thousand workers to live at the Hanford Camp, so believe me when I say you’ll have plenty of men to choose from.” He winked here, and I gave a small nod of appreciation. “The work being done is top secret. Frankly, I’m not sure what it’s all about—mum’s the word—but everyone says it will win us the war. I do know that a top United States general is involved, and some of the worlds finest scientists. Construction is being overseen by DuPont. But even these details you must keep top secret, Miss Groves.”
He handed me an informational sheet, and I read it self-consciously, keeping my back straight and my head slightly lifted so that I didn’t give myself, as my sister liked to tease me, too many chins.
To accommodate nearly 50,000 workers, the Hanford Camp is now the third- largest city in Washington State:
8 Mess Halls
110 barracks for men (for 190 persons each)
57 barracks for women
21 barracks for Negroes
6 barracks for Negro women
Plus family huts and trailers
Overall: 1,175 buildings in total for housing and services
There’s a lot of us, so remember: Loose talk helps our enemy, so let’s keep our traps shut!
“What a bold undertaking,’ I told him. “What an honor it would be to work there.”
His face crinkled cheerfully. “Regarding your application, I don’t have many reservations, Miss Groves. Your background check is clean. You’ve signed the secrecy documents. The only concern raised was about your questionnaire. A few of your answers were—how shall I put it? Unique.”
For a moment my future darkened. I had agonized over my application. I couldn’t imagine amiss.
“For example,” he said, lifting a sheet of paper up to his nose, “your response to the request for relevant job experience, if any, was, “I have imagined myself in a giant number of jobs, some of them impossible, some of them quite easy, and in my imaginings I’ve always done well by them, impossible or no.’ This statement struck some of the committee members as a wayward answer, Miss Groves. Would have been better to just state ‘No relevant job experience.’ Most of the women answering the charge are lacking in it, you realize.”
“Yes, I understand.” My eyelid violently twitched.
“And then there was your response to the question about your weaknesses. You wrote, and I quote, ‘I have made a big mistake in my life and it haunts me. Sometimes when I make a mistake this large it stays with me for a long time. I wish I got over things quickly.’ ”
I waited for him to continue, holding my breath. I thought of Mother, of the splash and crunch of bone when I pushed her down the bank into the river. I wondered if he could see her shadow flicker across my face, hear faintly the sound of her muffled scream.
“Lastly, when you were asked if there was anything you wished to add, you wrote, ‘I only wish to say how confident I am that I will be the best fit for this position. I have seen myself there as clear as day. I dream about it. I know for a fact that you will hire me. I will not let you down.’ ”
He looked up at me with his smooth worm’s face, his graying eyebrows raised slightly. He seemed more amused than troubled.
“I don’t need to tell you,’’ he continued, “that we need workers with very sound minds for this position, Miss Groves. We need reliability and obedience. Your confidence struck some of our committee as arrogance. And one or two of the men wondered about your rationality.”
“Omak Secretarial told us to be forthright and self-assured in our applications, sir. If I overdid it, I apologize.”
The recruiter cocked his head. “Personally, I found it refreshing. You should see some of the anxious girls we get in here. A bit of confidence is a good thing.’’
I stayed silent, balancing the line of my mouth on a tightrope of strength and humility. I knew better than to tell him the truth, that I had dreamed about Hanford, that I had seen myself there. I had, in fact, sleepwalked into Eastside Park, awaking with a start beside a grove of black cottonwoods, the trees shedding puffs of starlight all around me, the wind whispering through the branches my fate. He would hire me because I had envisioned it, and my visions always came true in one form or another.
As if sensing my memory, the recruiters face tightened. “You can no doubt imagine the outcome if secrets were shared with the feeble-minded.”
I leaned forward gravely. “Our very nation would be destroyed, sir.”
The recruiter’s visage softened into an approving pink mud. I’d made a good impression. He sat back in his chair and smiled.
“The truth is,” he said, “when I read your comments I thought, now here’s someone who really gets it. The confidence might bother some of my colleagues, but these times call for backbone. For attack! We should bomb those Germans to smithereens, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “most certainly. Bombs away.”
“You’re an exceptional sort of girl, Miss Groves, a skilled typist and a clear patriot. You won’t meet a more outstanding judge of character than myself, and given your excellent response in person, I’m happy to stamp my approval on your form.” He grinned at me, the grin of a generous benefactor. “I’m hiring you as a typist for Hanford. Welcome to the Women’s Army Corps.”
I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. My limbs buzzed with elation. “Oh, sir,” I said, opening my eyes. “I’m so grateful.”
I’d never stepped foot outside of Omak, but now I’d be a sophisticated, working woman at Hanford, joining the fight with the Allies and making the world a better place. I teared up, not sure if I should lean across the desk and shake his hand or if I should just stay rooted to my seat, trembling with destiny.
“I’m thrilled. You have no idea.”
“I tell every young person who comes through here, ‘Stand tall. You’re a hero.’ ”
He lifted gracefully from his chair as though showing me how to do it. I rose, too, more clumsily.
“Stand tall, Miss Groves. Shoulders back, chest forward. There you are. Well, almost. Good enough, anyway. Of course I can’t tell you the particulars of the work, but let me just say, you’ve chosen a lofty vocation. Selfless girls like you are one of the many reasons we’ll win this war.
At the word selfless, I heard in the stunned silence of my mind Mother’s dark laughter.
He offered me a sheaf of introductory papers and a voucher for a bus ticket. I accepted these, allowing his warm hand to grasp my elbow. He guided me toward the door and then released me.
“You’ll make some young man very happy one day, Miss Groves. Patriotic girls always do. Whatever you do, hold on to that innocence.”
Imagining Mother and Martha overhearing this description of me was almost more than I could bear. They would fall upon the recruiter and tear him apart for his mistake.
“I’ll hold on to it,’’ I said. “I promise.”
“Good girl. And good luck.”
I left his office a new woman, a WAC, a worker, a patriot, a selfless innocent—a warrior ready for battle.
From the book “The Cassandra: A Novel” by Sharma Shields. Copyright 2019 by Sharma Shields. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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