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The Idaho Bookshelf

Van Gordon Sauter unearths a handful of new (and old) gems to fill the shelves of any Idaho enthusiast.

Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident
By William McKeown,
Ecw Press, 2003

Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History
By Todd Tucker,
Free Press, 2009

January 3, 1961, was a beastly cold night in the Idaho desert at the National Reactor Testing Station, a military research facility not far from Idaho Falls and only a few hours drive from Ketchum. It was a time when the nation saw nuclear power as a critical component of our defense against the Soviet Empire and a domestic source of power for illuminating cities and fueling industrial and scientific growth.

On that night communication ceased with the three low level servicemen manning the experimental stationary low power plant No. 1. Firefighters who went to a perfunctory check encountered the only fatal nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history. A meltdown and steam explosion had occurred when a critical control rod was removed incorrectly. The firefighters encountered a horrific scene and a stunningly high radioactive isotope contamination. The three servicemen were dead, so corrupted by the event they were buried in lead coffins in cement graves.

It took more than 40 years to get the access, and to ask the right questions, about how this event occurred. Faulty planning and gross mismanagement of the facility are most likely factors, perhaps inept selection of employees or amateurish training. For years attention has focused on the three men. Was the rod removal a suicidal act? Or a homicidal act? Twisted relationships and stunning degeneracy boiled beneath the surface of the presumed rectitude of Idaho Falls. Exactly what happened in that control room will never be known, but Admiral Hyman Rickover, with great skill and commitment, succeeded in getting the American nuclear program back on track, a virtuoso performance of science and politics.

The NRTS accident foreshadowed Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and it should not be a forgotten event. McKeown, a journalist, does a better job here of telling a great yarn. Tucker, trained as a naval nuclear engineer, focuses on the technology and the politics surrounding the event. Neither book is a great read. But both reveal a dramatic, long-submerged event and make it come alive.

Then Came the Evening
By Brian Hart,
Bloomsbury USA, 2009

This is a first novel by a highly gifted author (a native of McCall) with significant potential. What contemporary author addresses material like this? The only answer is Cormac McCarthy. This family drama (and this family would drive anyone into a cave deep in the Sawtooths) is engaging and dramatic, and not for the faint of heart.
Set in Idaho, this novel proves rewarding for anyone who admires quality fiction but is not unnerved by tough content. The narrative is unrelenting and the characters precisely defined. Stay alert to Brian Hart. He could go the distance.



The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West
By Christopher Corbett,
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010

Try to find a credible trace of the Chinese population that lived in the Wood River Valley and the other Western mining communities during the days of gold and silver. Most likely you will only find newspaper clippings"”many reflecting the virulent anti "Celestial" bias that spread cruelty and chaos in the mining communities, not to mention the seedy legislatures that passed odious exclusionary laws.

Here and there you may find graves”empty graves, the bodies long since repatriated by benevolent societies that sent agents (known as bone collectors) to locate remains for shipment back for burial in China. The movement of those bodies was known as "the caravan of the dead."

It is thus a joy to find a contemporary book that profiles this remarkable Chinese population and celebrates Idaho's most memorable native of China, Polly Bemis, the poker bride. As an attractive young girl in China she was sold by her destitute parents into sexual slavery in America. She was singled out for shipment in 1872 to a Chinese man in northern Idaho. She became his concubine, but he soon lost her in a poker game to a feckless gambler and idler from Connecticut, Charlie Bemis.

When Bemis was shot in a gambling dispute, Polly nursed him to recovery. Polly and Charlie eventually did something remarkable, and dangerous, in its time: they married. The two moved to an isolated little farm on the Salmon River, a day's horseback ride out of Warren. It was one of the most inaccessible places in America.

Charlie died in 1922. Polly lived there until 1933, when she became ill and two prospectors brought her down to Grangeville. She died there at the age of 81. Her body was not returned to China, but to the ranch, where she wanted to be buried within earshot of the roar of the River of No Return.

This is not just a biography of Polly Bemis. It is a grand story of the Chinese in the West. Some of the characters bring tears to your eyes. Their courage and resilience is staggering. If you care about Idaho and the American West, get this book. It is informative, entertaining and deeply touching. Corbett, a journalism professor in Maryland, has given us a great gift.

Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture
By Vardis Fisher, Native American Books Distributor, 1937

During the depression the federal government commissioned some threadbare writers on the economic abyss to write guides to the states. The first completed was a guide to Idaho written by Vardis Fisher, who then, and even now, years after his death in 1968, is the preeminent Idaho author.

Reading the basic book now, nearly 75 years after its publication, is like sauntering through an elaborate Hollywood backlot, featuring villages and landscapes radiant with an unspoiled simplicity and relative isolation. Subsequent editions are altered and/or expanded, but even they sustain the essence of an Idaho partly vanished, but still accessible if you hit the backroads.

Original copies are pricey (nearly $600 for first editions in good condition) but subsequent editions can be found for around $10. This is a delightful gift for anyone who relishes books and celebrates Idaho.

Fisher, incidentally, is best known for his book Mountain Men, adapted by Sydney Pollock for his Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson. He also wrote a highly controversial book on Brigham Young and the Mormons, Church of God. Fisher, himself the son of a Mormon bishop, was an aggressive atheist, living near Hagerman on the Malad River. He was not a great American writer, but he was certainly our writer.