Atomic Family by Ciera Horton McElroy is historical fiction that looks at the looming threat of 1960s Cold War through the lens of a small family in South Carolina. Dean is an agronomist at a nuclear power plant who studies the effect of radioactive waste on the soil. His wife Nellie is a housewife who has suffered from depression and possibly alcoholism, and their ten year-old son Wilson is obsessed with protecting their small town from Communists. Atomic Family takes place over 24 hours, during which Nellie and Dean each examine their secret dissatisfactions and longings, and Wilson makes a dramatic gesture to show his patriotism and fearlessness.
Why I picked it up: I read about this book and put it on the library hold list. I was interested in the setting – 1961 – which isn’t really covered often in historical fiction.
The action in Atomic Family goes back and forth between the present and the past, exploring Nellie and Dean’s childhoods and their early marriage. Dean is deeply ambivalent about the plant and is on the verge of exposing the risks posed by the radioactive waste, even knowing the risks such a report will cause his career. Nellie, who feels aimless and without purpose. is recruited by other wives to join an anti-nukes protest, which she does less because of her convictions and more out of boredom. But it shakes it out of her fog, causing her to reflect on her marriage and dissatisfaction with her life. Wilson, meanwhile. is largely ignored by his parents until an accident at school grabs their attention.
I enjoyed this serious, cautionary book, which is not a light or quick read. It opens with a quote from JFK about abolishing weapons that can destroy the earth, and sadly his caution is relevant today, with similar application to climate change. The themes of fear and paranoia that threaded through the book gave it an urgency and bleakness that feel very familiar.
I listened to Atomic Family on audio. I thought the narration was just okay. One narrator did both Dean and Wilson’s chapters, which was a little disorienting, while a third did Nellie’s. I found my mind wandering during this audiobook more than most that I listen to, causing me to go back and re-listen on several occasions. I finished it in print and would recommend that over the audio.
Atomic Family was the 21st book of 2023.