MTPR

Sharma Shields Stares History In The Face

Sep 5, 2019

Mildred Groves is an unusual young woman. Gifted and cursed with the ability to see the future, Mildred runs away from home to take a secretary position at the Hanford Research Center in the early 1940s. Hanford, a massive construction camp on the banks of the Columbia River in remote South Central Washington, exists to test and manufacture a mysterious product that will aid the war effort. Only the top generals and scientists know that this product is processed plutonium, for use in the first atomic bombs.

The Cassandra

The following highlights are from a conversation with Sharma Shields about her novel, The Cassandra. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: Your protagonist, Mildred Groves, also known as Millie and Mad Mildred, is a woman with visions—the novel's title referencing Cassandra, the woman in Greek mythology who could see the future, though no one believed her because she spoke in riddles.

How did Mildred come to you, and what was it like to step into her reality?

Sharma Shields: Well, originally I wanted to write a mad scientist novel a la Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I had been researching these different abandoned factories in Spokane for the setting. This was back in 2014, 2015 when my first novel was published, I had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and a couple of people when I was speaking to them about the diagnosis, told me, “Oh, well, there are a lot of us that have Multiple Sclerosis in this area because we're downwind of Hanford.”

That was the first time I started really thinking of Hanford seriously as a possible setting for the novel. It seemed kind of like the perfect place with its own dark secrets that I could explore. I was really unversed regarding Hanford's history, so I booked at tour. . . I went over and explored the B Reactor, got to see the museum there, took a bus all the way around the Hanford Reach National Monument, which is enormous, and saw some communities, like White Bluffs, that were displaced there.

I think it was really that tour that made me start thinking of Mildred, and start thinking of this not as the Mary Shelley scientist novel, but as a historical novel set in 1944 and 1945. What struck me as the most surprising detail was that people that were working there, this enormous workforce that was brought in of 40,000 to 60,000 people, had no idea what they were making at Hanford, and that it was going to be producing the plutonium, ultimately, for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.

That struck me as so interesting, and had so many parallels to our current era of complicity, of our militarism, and made me start thinking about some women that were going there for the first time to join the workforce. Mildred Groves popped into my head, and along with it the Cassandra myth.

Can you just describe Hanford for the listeners?

Yes.

Hanford was part of the Manhattan Project. It was selected by General Groves back when the Manhattan Project was first getting started. It was the very first nuclear reactor created, anywhere in the world; the first successful nuclear reactor.

They chose South Central Washington State, and the Hanford Reach area because of its arid shrub step, it's extremely remote. It had really high winds, which they thought might help diffuse some pollution in the area. Then, it also had the Columbia River, which is one of the biggest rivers in the continental United States, its extremely powerful, and they needed all of that water to cool the reactors to create the reaction that they needed for plutonium production.

They liked that area because the communities that they displaced  were smaller than some other locations they'd been looking at. They basically gave people a month to move without any sort of payment for it or anything. They were just kicked out, and they began construction and managed to build this thing in very short amount of time.

It's not too far from where I grew up in Spokane, which is in Eastern Washington, it's just a couple hours drive from Spokane. A lot of people call Spokane and other parts of the inland Northwest downwind of Hanford, because the wind can push some of that pollution. I think what they found, that they weren't expecting, is how devastating the pollution was within the soil, and how it harmed livestock, and then, of course, how it created thyroid cancers in people, and birth defects and the like as time went by there.

As you just mentioned, the book takes place in Central Washington, and you even cover some Indigenous occupants of the area that were pushed out. At one point in the book you write a meditation from Millie.

“When I walked, I began to hear the very earth groan beneath my feet. What did it mean to be born white in this country? To speak a language germinated not here but overseas? To infest and control but to never belong or care for, like a parasite? What horrors had we committed, what horrors did we continue to commit to the original inhabitants . . . ?”

How did you figure out that this was necessary, and how did you weave it in through her?

Well, I've been thinking a lot about my own complicity, my whiteness in an area that whites were the settlers here. We were not its original inhabitants.

In Spokane, where I grew up, we still have a very strong Indigenous community there, and around Washington State where my mom is from, [Omak], Okanagan, which is where Mildred starts her life, as well. I wanted that to be very much a part of this book because I feel that our dominance and our violence against the original peoples here are very much connected to our militarism around the world. I believe it is very Colonial in its roots, and this novel is really about staring our history into the face, all of it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable and uncertain of ourselves and our identities.

For me, that's the only we can we move forward and be a healthier country, and be better in our local communities, and all of it, if we can take some serious assessment of who we are and what we've done, and how that's continued in so many ways today. How we continue to harm the Indigenous communities today, and how we continue to harm Blacks in America. For me, it's all connected, in a way. That misogyny, that racism, that globalism, that dominance. All of that I think is connected.

About the Book:

The Cassandra follows a woman who goes to work in a top secret research facility during WWII, only to be tormented by visions of what the mission will mean for humankind.

Mildred Groves is an unusual young woman. Gifted and cursed with the ability to see the future, Mildred runs away from home to take a secretary position at the Hanford Research Center in the early 1940s. Hanford, a massive construction camp on the banks of the Columbia River in remote South Central Washington, exists to test and manufacture a mysterious product that will aid the war effort. Only the top generals and scientists know that this product is processed plutonium, for use in the first atomic bombs.

Mildred is delighted, at first, to be part of something larger than herself after a lifetime spent as an outsider. But her new life takes a dark turn when she starts to have prophetic dreams about what will become of humankind if the project is successful. As the men she works for come closer to achieving their goals, her visions intensify to a nightmarish pitch, and she eventually risks everything to question those in power, putting her own physical and mental health in jeopardy. Inspired by the classic Greek myth, this 20th century reimagining of Cassandra's story is based on a real WWII compound that the author researched meticulously. A timely novel about patriarchy and militancy, The Cassandra uses both legend and history to look deep into man's capacity for destruction, and the resolve and compassion it takes to challenge the powerful.

About the Author:

Sharma Shields

Sharma Shields holds an MFA from the University of Montana. She is the author of the short story collection Favorite Monster, winner of the 2011 Autumn House Fiction Prize, and the novel The Sasquatch Hunters’ Almanac, winner of the Washington State Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Electric Literature, and more. Shields has worked in independent bookstores and public libraries throughout Washington State. She lives in Spokane with her husband and children