Aftermath of the atomic age

Downwinders combines fact and fiction about U.S. nuclear testing

The activities at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s are something I never learned about growing up in Texas, or even in my high school history classes in Las Vegas. It’s still mind-blowing to me that the U.S. government repeatedly assured its citizens that the radioactive fallout from the dozens of nuclear blasts was basically harmless.

Of course, now we know that the effects of the tests at the Nevada Test Site were far from harmless, and over time, we learn more about the truth behind the U.S. Atomic Age. In Downwinders, authors Dianne Nelson Oberhansly and Curtis Oberhansly, both natives of Utah, combine fact and fiction about America’s nuclear past into a fast-paced—and at times clichéd—legal thriller.

At the center of the novel is Christine Parker, a 37-year-old recovering from breast cancer. She spent the early years of her life on a ranch in Utah downwind of the nuclear testing, and she and her uncle, Dallas, suspect that her cancer is the result. At a bar in Utah, Dallas and Christine happen upon Dr. Franklin Rudd, the manager of the Nevada Test Site in ‘50s. Christine instigates a heated exchange, one thing leads to another, and Dallas kills Rudd, as we learn in the opening lines:

“Dallas Parker did not arrive with the intent of killing the old man, but it had happened—not in slow motion like the movies would have it, but quickly, surely. The knife in, levered sideways and then out. Nothing technical about it. The windpipe cut, then a brief gurgling.”

To draw attention away from Christine and establish a motive, Dallas steals a few items from Rudd’s office, including an unpublished manuscript. This manuscript turns out to be a tell-all that will “blow the lid off the U.S. atomic testing program.” It proves that the government not only covered up the dangers associated with radioactive fallout from the tests, but actively promoted the tests as safe. Enter Dallas’ lawyer, Layne Harting, who has been charged by his client to get the manuscript into the right hands.

But the wrong hands are already hot on their trail. The Feds are in the midst of a trial against downwinders in Las Vegas, and the release of this manuscript would be detrimental to their defense, to say the least. So a crooked government lawyer asks a crooked U.S. marshal to nab the book, and he sends a psychotic ex-con to do the job. Meanwhile, a soon-to-retire FBI officer is assigned to the investigation of Rudd’s murder, completely unaware of the shit about to hit the fan.

Many of the Oberhanslys’ characters have been written or portrayed on-screen before, but the unique plot makes up for a lack of originality in the characters. Also, between each chapter, the authors splice in a short glimpse into the past. Especially disturbing is a description of a platoon of Marines in a bunker just two miles from a nuclear blast:

“Even with their eyes tightly closed, the bones in their forearms, elbows and hands … clear as any X-ray, glowed a bright, fluorescent green. … There were moans and groans and one dazed Marine, staring up at the hissing cloud, lost his balance, stumbled sideways, and went down on top of his weapon, the side of his helmet slamming into the steel barrel.”

The dialogue isn’t always stellar, and the authors take a few predictable turns on their way to the finale, but Downwinders is still an engaging and quick read. It also puts a human face on the Atomic Age, and for those of us living in Nevada, that human face could easily be someone living next door.