Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Jacket-14• Grade Range: 6th-Adult
• History related title
• Author: Steve Sheinkin
• Title: Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
• Publisher: New York, Roaring Brook
• 2012
• 266 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-59643-487-5
• Awards: Newbery Honor Book~National Book Awards Finalist~Robert F. Sibert Award~YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction~Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year~BCCB Recommended Title~CCBC Choice (Univ. of WI)~Washington Post Best Books of the Year~Maine Student Book Award Master List~VA Jefferson Cup Winner (Older Readers)~Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award Master List
• Author’s website: http://www.stevesheinkin.com/

At secret locations in America, brilliant and eccentric scientists raced to develop the atomic bomb ahead of Hitler. Meanwhile teams of Allied spies sought to sabotage German efforts, while Soviet agents infiltrated and stole the bomb’s plans, before it was even deployed.

Sheinkin masterfully tells the big story of the creation and theft of the most destructive weapon ever invented. His cinematic style, and exemplary editing and pacing make Bomb a real page-turner. He introduces tens of characters, from Robert Oppenheimer: the original, brilliant absent-minded-professor, through Knut Haukelid: a Norweigan real-life Jason Bourne, to Harry Gould: an innocuous American whose desire to please caused him to hand the world’s deadliest weapon to one of the century’s most ruthless dictators.

Sheinkin packs his story with fascinating personalities and intriguing anecdotes. The well-chosen details and telling quotes let the reader get to know the characters and helps to keep them straight. It’s hard to forget Oppenheimer once we’ve been introduced to the fact he once got so wrapped up in thinking of physics he left a date parked in a romantic spot while he walked home and went to bed. Chapters end with cliffhangers, drawing the reader on. But like any masterful storyteller Sheinkin teases out our interest, deftly interweaving chapters on bomb development with those covering espionage and the political and practical maneuverings that led to the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sheinkin sets up his story with a dramatic prologue: the moment the spy Harry Gould decides to confess to the two FBI agents who had finally tracked him down: “Yes, I am the man,’ Gold said…There is a great deal more to this story. It goes way back…I would like to tell it all.” The final chapter of the book, after the story has been told, wraps up back at the beginning: with Harry Gold moments before the agents knock on his door, starting up the stairs to try to destroy seventeen years of evidence. An epilogue briefly explores the fates of some of the main characters: the spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and Ted Hall and the scientist Robert Oppenheimer. A reflective essay briefly summarizes the arms race up to the present day.

Throughout the book period photographs, diagrams and relevant documents enhance understanding. The letter Albert Einstein wrote to FDR, making him aware of the danger of German development of atomic weapons, is reproduced in full. As usual Sheinkin’s source notes are exemplary: he groups his sources according to topic and provides brief annotations for each group to help readers research areas of interest. Photos are credited and all direct quotes are documented by chapter. The acknowledgments include experts who helped him vet material. An index concludes the book.

Bomb does a superb job of telling a compelling and complex story. It is clear Sheinkin respects children’s sophistication, curiosity and intelligence and that respect is both well-placed and returned. When I recently asked a seventh grade boy if he had read Bomb he replied simply: “it’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

For those who want more on this topic, check out the excellent graphic novel Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorn. While it doesn’t cover much of the espionage it does an excellent job explaining the physics behind the bomb and covers the destruction of Hiroshima more thoroughly than Bomb. Another excellent complimentary book is Edward T. Sullivan’s The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb. Sullivan’s work goes into details about the secret industrial complexes, staffed by civilians, where the plutonium and uranium were produced. It also offers more material on the internal debate about using the bomb among scientists, politicians and military leaders and spends more time on the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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