I came across The Year of the Bomb at my local library in the junior fiction section and I was intrigued by the jacket flap text. Set in the 1950s, the book takes place in Sierra Madre during the filming of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Four teenage boys, obsessed with horror movies, are thrilled that it’s being filmed in their town — until they discover that there are undercover FBI agents involved. I got the impression from the blurb that maybe the book would take a turn into sci-fi, with pod people actually making an appearance in the book.
As it turns out, that’s not really what happens, but it doesn’t make the book any less worth reading. Ronald Kidd, who was obsessed with horror movies as a kid, takes a lot of real events and weaves them into a compelling tale about fear. He uses the pod people as a sort of metaphor (kind of how Shaun of the Dead used zombies as a metaphor, until the literal zombies showed up): there are people who aren’t really awake, who look like real people but aren’t really living. That’s not all, though — the book is also about McCarthyism, the fear of the Bomb, Richard Feynman, movie-making, and a host of other things that you wouldn’t think would work in a book for young readers.
Here’s the gist of it: Paul Smith (a plain kid with a plain name) spends most of his time with his three friends Oz, Arnie, and Crank, going to horror movies. Oz is the geek who knows bits of trivia about everything, but particularly about movies. Arnie’s a bit of a dolt, scared of his own shadow and not too bright. Crank is a big kid who probably would have bullied the other three if it weren’t for their shared love of sci-fi and movies. When the news hits that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is going to be filmed in their sleepy little town, they can’t wait. They show up on set every day, getting to know some of the filmmakers and a pretty extra named Laura.
Eventually they discover that one of the actors is actually an FBI agent, searching for Communists in Hollywood. And he’s also on the trail of Richard Feynman, who worked on the atomic bomb and happens to live in the town next door. The boys get sucked into both the production of the movie and the investigation, taking things into their own hands and getting a lot more than they bargained for. It’s a fascinating story, all the more so for the truth it’s based on. While Paul and his friends are entirely fictional, the filming of the movie (and some of its principal participants) was pretty accurately portrayed. Feynman was indeed under investigation, and the evidence against him described in the book was also based in reality.
Paul and his friends can’t agree on whether Feynman is guilty, and I thought the shifting sands of adolescent friendship was very accurately portrayed here. Oz’s dad, a former sound editor, has been blacklisted because of college ties to Communists, so he’s not convinced the FBI has everyone’s best interests at heart. Crank, on the other hand, believes in the picture of “good guys” and “bad guys” and can’t understand how anyone could be uncertain about it. Feynman himself plays a significant role in the book, and his conversations with the boys are fantastic and definitely have a Feynman-esque quality to them.
The Year of the Bomb draws a connection between the fear of nuclear war and annihilation to the monsters and aliens that were so prevalent in movies in the 1950s. Fear was in the air then — fear of the Russians, of Communists, of the bomb, of flying saucers — and it made its way into pop culture as well.
I really enjoyed reading The Year of the Bomb; I sat down to read a little before bed and ended up reading it almost in one sitting. I think it’s a great combination: an action-adventure, coming of age, historical fiction, buddy story with a good deal of movie trivia to boot. Oh, and Richard Feynman! What’s not to love?
The Year of the Bomb was published by Simon and Schuster in 2009.