A couple recent headlines are on my mind in the wake of having read “The Cassandra,” the new novel from Spokane author Sharma Shields. First, from The Guardian, this: “House Democrats investigate ‘White House plan’ to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia.” And this, from my morning Twitter feed: “Vladimir Putin says Russia will target U.S. if it deploys missiles to Europe.” Either headline will lead the curious reader to a story that could easily have been foreseen by "The Cassandra" of Shields’s novel, Mildred “Mad Milly” Groves. Mildred is our main character, and the first person narrator of the tale, which unfolds from her delightfully — for the most part —unreliable perspective.
Cassandra is a figure from Greek myth, cursed by the god Apollo to see prophesies of the future which no one believes when she shares them. Mildred Groves has the same questionable gift. Via Mildred’s recollections we see how her prophecies, and her sharing of them, have left her ostracized from her home in Omak, a tiny city in north-central Washington state. She is in her early 20s as the story begins, and lives essentially as servant and caretaker to her cruel and infirm mother. Yet Mildred dreams of a larger, more glamorous life for herself in the world.
The book opens in 1944. Mildred has had a vision, and the opening scene of her being interviewed for a job at the just-opened Hanford site, a government installation hiring thousands of workers, is in service to that vision. Mildred knows she has to go to Hanford, and her excellence as a typist wins her the gig. As opening scenes go, Shields delivers a perfect one. The tone is set for the novel, as we see Mildred’s odd nature quite clearly. We are served hints that, for all her portrayed innocence, she isn’t all what she seems, and, perhaps most importantly, we see the world she lives in as portrayed by the offhand, business-as-usual misogyny in her treatment by her interviewer.
Mildred abandons her mother and leaves for Hanford, three hours away by bus. The facility sprawls over hundreds of acres on the banks of the Columbia River, and is ruled by relentless winds that drive several people mad. Mildred makes a handful of friends, establishing a small cast of characters, and finds herself a secretary to one of the primary physicists involved with the project, Dr. Phillip Hall. He demands three essential things from her: loyalty, secrecy and safety. Her ready compliance allows Mildred a ringside seat to what is happening at Hanford, as she is privy to information few others are exposed to. Her willingness to play by the rules leads to horrific visions related to the final, fatal goals of the Hanford project.
As in the Hanford of our real world, few people working there in Shields’ novel don’t know what the goal of the project is, or what purpose “the product” they are working to develop is. They only know it is essential to the defeat of Hitler, and that their efforts are the highest form of patriotism. Of course we now know that Hanford played a key role in the development of nuclear weapons, and has left a legacy of environmental destruction and severe health problems to vast numbers of people who lived and worked nearby.
Mildred’s visions grow more and more terrible as the book proceeds. She sees piles of dead bodies — women and children, mostly, and old people. She interacts with strange, phantom-lie human/animal constructs only she can see who urge her to stop what is happening. Like those of her mythological namesake, her warnings are ignored, even when the targets of her grim warnings, like Dr. Ross, can’t deny the likelihood of her prophesies. Those people — scientists, military types, mostly all men — want to see the fruits of their efforts pay off, necessary or not, regardless of the human cost.
“The Cassandra” is a dark novel. Still, there are moments of humor, mostly black, that are wonderful. I find Shields’s wry narrative voice, in all the work of hers I’ve read, a gas. I loved Mildred Groves as a character, despite some of her choices and the unreliability of her vision. If one is at all familiar with the Cassandra myth, we know things aren’t going to go well for Mildred, but the unfolding story is one well worth following through the pages. Bad things happen to her, and other people she counts on for support fail her. She enacts terrible things as well. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine this book not being on my favorite reads list at the end of the year.
Sharma Shields has delivered a modern retelling of an ancient myth that is a bright spotlight on the world that was, and the one that still is, particularly considering the headlines of the day. A new Cold War seems to be on our horizon, and we are throwing up razor wire at our borders and imprisoning children, all in the name of a sick, twisted vision of a kind of nationalism that should be archaic. Despite a growing chorus of real world Cassandras, though, the powers-that-be don’t seem to be listening, and that is to our, and the world’s, peril.