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The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Source: the poet
Paperback, 82 pgs
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The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey, which will be on tour with Poetic Book Tours this month, is a collection that blends invention with a cautionary tale.  Imaginary friends and close connections we make as children often help fill in the holes we have because of our own family dynamics, and the robot scientist and his daughter are no different.  While the scientist experiments for the pure joy of discovery, the consequences of his actions often take a backseat even if those consequences are widely devastating.  In the author’s note, Gailey says, “One reason I wrote this book was to raise awareness that nuclear research is never harmless; that the half-life of the pollution from nuclear sites is longer than most human lifespans; that there is, from reading my father’s research as well as my college classes, no truly safe way to store nuclear waste.” (pg. 6)

These poems will definitely make you think deeper about nuclear research and the effects of not only disposing of waste, but also the impact of atomic bombs and nuclear meltdowns.  Some of Gailey’s signature references to comic book characters and myths are present in these poems if you know where to look, like Dr. Manhattan who found himself transformed by an accident in a lab — an accident that resembles one caused by physicist Louis Slotin — and his modified outlook on humanity, which resembles the attacks of conscience felt by Oppenheimer.  While there are references to the Manhattan nuclear project, the bulk of the collection focuses on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

America Dreams of Roswell

The forbidding sugar of hot desert sand
and hallucinations of mushroom clouds

linger in a city where you can still get pie
with a fried egg on top, where you might catch

a glimpse of UFO dazzle, even the lampposts bloom
into alien heads, where barbed wire might keep out enemies

of the American dream, where the tiny famous lizard’s legs
cling to sad, solid rock.  On the Trinity site, that sand

turned to green glass.  The scientists were unsure
about igniting the whole earth’s atmosphere, nevertheless

the violet light demanded goggles; the shadows
of ranch houses burned into the ground.

Like most young girls, our narrator tries to fit in, which is hard in a secretive community where the government has sought waivers from its workers and those living and working in the community cannot speak to anyone about the research being done. Even children get a sense of being cloistered, being penned in.  While some poems are about the past and the nuclear research at the Tennessee labs, some poems take a more recent approach in examining the fallout from the Fukushima disaster, the direct result of a earthquake-generated tsunami.  From butterflies born without eyes to the beautiful disaster that is the art of an explosion, the poet calls into question human curiosity and the vanity that sometimes comes with that, in which the scientist believes only good will result from research and experiments, despite historical evidence to the contrary.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey has a gift of putting the bigger questions into a more manageable world within her poems.  From “They Do Not Need Rescue,” “No one needs rescue here in America’s Secret City./…/Not the children/dying of leukemia quietly in hospitals funded/by government grants, uncounted because/their numbers might seem damning.//”  We want to bury our sins and hide from the truth, but it cannot be secreted away, no matter how hard we try.

About the Poet:

Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Poet Laureate of Redmond, WA and the author of Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers, available spring of 2013. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, and Prairie Schooner. She teaches part-time at National University.

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

Source: Penguin Random House
Paperback, 416 pgs
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The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson is a phenomenal look at the racial prejudices that continue to hold tight in Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere, even after then end of WWII when black soldiers fought bravely against the Nazis.  Joe Howard Wilson is returning home as a decorated hero after losing not only men in his unit, but one of his good friends, L.C.  He’s musing on his visit with his father, Willie Willie, who taught him so much and worked with their white employer, Judge Calhoun, to ensure he was educated enough to get out and make something of himself.

Gotcha!

Joe Howard Wilson jerked and his hands went straight to his face, and then to his body, for his gun.  Groping. Feeling. Saying his prayers.  Checking to make sure that he was awake and what had happened in that forest in Italy, all the killing was over.  Checking to make sure it wasn’t happening now.”  (page 1)

Joe is a young man still coping with the loss of friends, only to find that the prejudices he dealt with growing up are still present and an additional pressure he has little patience for after serving for his country overseas.  When Regina Robichard, a young attorney still waiting to hear if she passed the New York bar, is called down to investigate the death of a WWII veteran a year later, she finds that the south is not as black and white as she expects it to be.  She’s sent south with a mission from Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP to investigate the matter.  Regina, the daughter of a relatively famous black female activist, is idealistic and tentative in her approach to those she encounters, particularly M.P. Calhoun, who wrote her favorite book — The Secret of Magic.

“The air in the depot smelled just like everything Southern he remembered.  Even inside, no matter where you were, there was always a hint of the earth and the things that died on it.  You could not get away from the scent of things, from the richness of them, if you had lived, like he had lived, so near to the ground.”  (page 8)

Through a neatly woven narrative, Johnson creates a tapestry of the south that depicts not only the racial prejudices present in the south that are held onto tightly even after WWII, but also the deep connections between the whites and blacks within the small community of Revere, Mississippi.  Like all relationships, at first blush racial prejudice is hatred of the other, but looking deeper Johnson demonstrates that there is a love underneath the comments of “mine” and “our” used by whites in reference to blacks in the community.  Revere is a town that is in transition whether it likes it or not, and in many ways, the change is too quick for some and not quick enough for others — especially those like Peach Mottley who see Regina as the catalyst they need.

The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson is gorgeously told, and it is riveting from the first page.  Readers will develop an instant connection with not only Joe Howard Wilson and Regina Robichard, but with the other major and minor characters as they continue to navigate the social constructs that are the same and yet changing.  The fairy tales that peek around the realities of the South provide hope of a new world, but they also are endangered by those who wish to halt change in its tracks.

I haven’t been this blown away by a book in a long while, and this one is a must read and a definite contender for the Best of 2015 list.

About the Author:

Deborah Johnson was born below the Mason-Dixon Line, in Missouri, but grew up in Omaha, Nebraska.  After college, she lived in San Francisco and then for many years in Rome, Italy where she worked as a translator and editor of doctoral theses and at Vatican Radio.  Deborah Johnson is the author of The Air Between Us, which received the Mississippi Library Association Award for fiction.  She now lives in Columbus, Mississippi, and is working on her next novel.  Check out her Website.