The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages



Klages, Ellen. The Green Glass Sea. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0670061344

Plot Summary

Dewey Kerrigan lives with her grandmother, but when she has to go into a home, Dewey is shipped off to New Mexico where her father is working on a secret project for the army in the early 1940’s in a place that does not officially exist. Dewey gets to know the people working on this secret “gadget” over the next few years and spends a lot of time on her own since her dad is always working. She has trouble fitting in at school and keeps mostly to herself until her father has to go away for a few weeks and she is forced to stay at the home of a girl from her class who she knows does not like her. What happens after Dewey goes to stay with the Gordon’s changes not only Dewey’s life forever, but the world as it was known at that time.

Critical Analysis

The characters in Klages’s novel are incredibly real and easy to identify with. The main character Dewey, is the smart, nerdy girl who no one in class likes, save for the couple of kids who can see past the exterior. The secondary female character, Suze, is the girl on the fringe of the popular group trying desperately to be accepted to their inner circle full-time. She goes along with their mean girl routines when she thinks it will help her get into their good graces, but deep down she knows it is wrong and is a good person. The adults all love their children very much and work hard, almost too hard, to provide for them. The children fend for themselves more often than not since all the adults on “the Hill”, as it is called, are working non-stop trying to create “the gadget” (atomic bomb). Young readers will be able to see themselves or a classmate in one of the characters and some may identify with having a parent who is largely absent. Even though the essence of the characters is relevant in 2015, they still represent the 1940s through their choice of words, their attire, their pastimes, and the household products they use.

Klages presents the history in this book accurately and seamlessly weaves it into the narrative for a smoothly flowing story. When this book is read in tandem with a nonfiction account of the same subject matter, Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin, it is almost at parts as if the books are one and the same. The difference in the two comes in the details. This novel leaves the minutiae to the nonfiction title and focuses on the story without getting bogged down in details. The actions of the characters and the events in the story are true to the time period. For example, Suze’s mom makes Ovaltine in a saucepan on the stove, Dewey has an Erector set, and long distance travel is primarily by bus or train.

The book takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a town that didn’t officially exist at the time. It was referred to as “the Hill” by its residents and it was secured as an army base. Klages does a good job of recreating this historic place and describing it in such detail that the reader can picture each conversation in Suze’s kitchen and each stroll past the motor pool to the Tech PX. The book is divided into sections by time and each section is labeled with a year and then there are various dates at the beginning of chapters throughout the sections to further mark the passage of time. All the events in these dated sections line up with the actual dates in history.

Klages develops strong themes based on relationships throughout the book. To begin, there are the strained relationships of Dewey and her next door neighbor and Dewey and Suze. Next, there are the solid relationships between Dewey and two brothers, Charlie and Jack, who see Dewey for who she really is and are friends with her. There are also mentoring relationships between Dewey and several of the adults on the Hill that work with her father. Most importantly, there is the loving, protective relationship between Dewey and her father. When this relationship is abruptly altered for life, Dewey’s strained relationship with Suze progresses from there to tenuous, on to stable, and eventually to solid and deep. The characters have to deal with loss and disappointment and they learn that they must rely on others to help them through tough times. These themes speak to the strong family values of the 1940s, but still ring true today as well.

This novel is written from the perspective of a third person narrator looking in on all the events, but Klages still manages to capture the emotions and inner thoughts of each character through their dialogue and through descriptions of them. Word choice and other elements help the story stay true to the time period with examples such as “time machine” to refer to alarm clock and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” playing on the radio. The slightly more formal tone of the dialogue is evidence of the time period as well. Klages has written a good story that is only deepened by the presence of the historical aspect.

There are no formal citations or bibliography listed in the book, but Klages writes in her author’s note and acknowledgements how she conducted research at several different libraries and historical societies and found “vintage period material” on eBay to help her envision her 1940s world. Klages has also listed several resources for further reading at the end of her novel. These sources are nonfiction works which lay out the facts of the subject. As mentioned before, the facts in this book are proven accurate by their similarity to the information found in Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin, which does have extensive notes and citations documenting the facts.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Ellen Klages has created a story about two girls who have problems that one could easily see a child of a Los Alamos scientist having back in the 40s while living on the Hill. That said, these girls and their story could easily be set somewhere else in time or space. This is an excellent example of historical fiction.

Review Excerpts

Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award

( WON AWARD in 2007 )

Locus Awards


Quill Awards


Nene Award


Maine Student Book Award


Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award


“However, when Dewey’s father leaves for Washington, she is left to fend off the biggest bully in Los Alamos. The novel occasionally gets mired down in detail, but the characters are exceptionally well drawn, and the compelling, unusual setting makes a great tie-in for history classes.” — Booklist, November 2006

“Klages makes an impressive debut with an ambitious, meticulously researched novel set during WWII. Writing from the points of view of two displaced children, she successfully recreates life at Los Alamos Camp, where scientists and mathematicians converge with their families to construct and test the first nuclear bomb. Eleven-year-old Dewey, the daughter of a math professor, is shunned by the other girls at the camp due to her passionate interest in mechanics and her fascination with the dump, which holds all sorts of mechanisms and tools she can use for her projects.” — Publisher’s Weekly, October 2006

“Klages evokes both the big-sky landscape of the Southwest and a community where “”everything is secret”” with inviting ease and the right details, focusing particularly on the society of the children who live there. Dewey seems comfortable with her own oddness (she’s small for her age, slightly lame, and loves inventing mechanical gizmos) and serves as something of an example to another girl, Suze, who has been trying desperately to fit in.” — Horn Book Magazine, December 2006


Pair this book with a Newbery Honor winning nonfiction book about the making of the atomic bomb:

       Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous        Weapon by Steve Sheinkin, ISBN 9781596434875

Read the sequel to this book:

       White Sands, Red Menace ISBN 9780142415184

Read the poem “No More Hiroshima” by James Kirkup, available in              One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children, ISBN 9780192761903

Explore the following websites to learn more”

Check with local colleges and universities to see if there is an expert on this period in history who can come and speak to students

Pair this novel with primary source documents for a history lesson. Documents can be found at

Visit the website of a Japanese museum in Nagasaki to compare and contrast how American and Japanese museums treat the subject.

Image from Google Books, accessed April 1, 2015. Cover art property of Viking and Ellen Klages.


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