Atomic Parable

Atomic Parable

Sharma Shields’ highly anticipated novel The Cassandra recounts a dark slice of state history with a prescience for the future of nuclear politics 

Spokane author Sharma Shields. | Photo by Young Kwak.

She was spun up from wild threads of imagination, yet Mildred Groves is at once a reflection of our darkest selves and a beacon of warning for a potentially dire future.

Groves is the troubled and simultaneously empowered protagonist of award-winning Spokane author Sharma Shields’ sophomore novel, The Cassandra. Releasing on Feb. 12 with a launch party at the Spokane Public Library’s downtown branch, the book’s plot centers around the nuclear weapons program at Washington state’s Hanford Site during World War II.

While deeply rooted in the recorded history of the 586-acre site bordering the southern reaches of the Columbia River, Shields’ story was also heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks’ epic Cassandra myth. The tragic princess of Troy was gifted with accurate foresight of the future, but likewise cursed because no one believed her prophecies. So, too, is Mildred Groves, an unusual young woman from rural Omak, Washington.

“I’ve loved Greek myths since I was a little girl,” Shields says. “It was my gateway drug to all things mythological and monstrous. I read myths before I read fairy tales, and that has always been a strong pull in my work, touching on those stories and using those metaphors from mythology.”

Not unlike her 2015 debut and Washington State Book Award-winning novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, in which a man struggles to process his mother’s abandonment for an intimate relationship with Bigfoot, The Cassandra hovers between realistic fiction and fabulism. To balance the novel’s fantastical protagonist who sees the future, Shields was mindful not to take too much creative liberty with the historical details she discovered while researching Hanford and the often grisly experiences of its wartime workforce.

Shields’ second novel was published February 2019.

The Cassandra begins in 1944 as Mildred Groves lands her ticket to freedom from an oppressive home life in the form of a well-paying secretarial job at Hanford, where she is then assigned to assist one of the site’s top scientists. Like the majority of its wartime employees, Mildred isn’t informed of what “the product,” as the top-secret nuclear weapons project was called, being manufactured there really is.

Nevertheless, she becomes plagued with horrific, recurring visions of the forthcoming annihilation unleashed by the nuclear bomb Fat Man, loaded with plutonium from Hanford and dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Mildred also perceives the radioactive fallout the project is having on the living residents, human and animal, and the land surrounding Hanford. Just like the novel’s namesake, she is dismissed, even by those she trusts, as mentally unstable or unreasonably paranoid.

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