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The Cassandra: a review

cover the cassandra by sharma shields
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

This book is ostensibly about the nuclear development site at Hanford, WA: “Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project in Hanford, south-central Washington, the site was home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world.[1] Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.”

This book is also ostensibly about Mildred Groves, a unique woman. Mildred has visions, which began when she was a child, and then she gets a job at the Hanford Site and the visions get worse. She dreams of all the women, children, men, and animals that the nuclear bombs will obliterate. Also, the destruction of the landscape is not forgotten and is counted as a casualty of this war. The visions become more frequent and more intense when Mildred comes to work at the Hanford Site. They take their own weight and trajectory, and her friends become increasingly concerned about the visions as the project nears its completion, the bombs get dropped, and the war comes to an end.

Hanford High was used as office space, then abandoned. Photo credit: The Spokesman-Review

Mildred suffers greatly in the story. Initially because of her family, then because of her visions, then because she is attacked and left for dead. She is an unreliable narrator, at times confusing the unreal and the only-real-to-her, and the real. The story unravels a bit at the end, as Mildred becomes consumed by the consequences of the actions taken by her country, the workers at the Hanford Site, and the man who assaulted her. At the end of the story, she is wrung out, without a great deal of hope.

The parallels of the Hanford Site to the Greek myths of Cassandra and the Trojan War are very well done, and this book’s lyrical voice is well executed.

The lament in this book that war is still a vehicle men use to distinguish themselves is so clear. There are honorable men and dishonorable men in the story. The whole novel is, to a lesser extent, about good people who are participating in a great evil by “just doing their jobs.” They may or may not acknowledge the evil.

The Hanford Reach National Monument, Columbia River; The White Bluffs, Wahluke Slope,
shrub-steppe grassland; Eastern Washington State Pacific Northwest.
Once Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located near Tri Cities area. Photo credit: Men’s Journal.

Environmentalists have spent decades trying to mitigate the effects of nuclear waste on the land and in the water in this area of Washington. So this book hearkens back not only to World War II but to a hardly-distant past, maybe ten years ago.

What this book is really about, though, are these questions: what will it take to believe women? What are the consequences of not believing women? How can we stop being a part of an evil that will eventually destroy us?

There are lots of resources to learn more about Hanford, including The Manhattan Project National Historical Site as well as The Spokesman-Review, the local newspaper in Spokane.

hanford reactor b-complex
Hanford reactor B complex, mentioned in the novel.