I went into this book knowing that I would find it interesting, but did not expect to love it as much as I did. Salverson has taken the topic of the ‘atomic highway’ and used it to write an intimate and moving memoir about guilt and innocence, trauma and recovery.
Julie Salverson has an interesting background in working with people who have suffered trauma. She is “drawn to tragedy and the fault lines in the psyche of a culture”, and she writes plays and operas about it. As a child, Julie Salverson had always had a fascination with (and a fear of) nuclear war. So when she found out that the uranium used in the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima came from a place in Canada called Great Bear Lake, and that representatives of the Dene Nation had recently made a trip to Hiroshima to apologize for their part in it (having only just had this information confirmed in the 1990s), she felt drawn to follow the story. As she journeys to each place on the ‘highway’, she seeks answers to questions, such as “What kind of responsibility are they taking, these Dene from northern Canada, who surely are victims in this situation and not perpetrators?” and “What kind of debt do any of us have to the past?”
The perception that restitution will never fully occur, most of all the interminable process of not being listened to, has had a devastating impact in Déline.
“We are suffering intense guilt and grief in our community that the materials we carried to the barges and to the aircraft went to make an atomic bomb that killed many tens of thousands of human beings in Japan. Our people feel that if they had been told what they were helping to do, they would not have done it.” — from the Canada-Déline Uranium Table Final Report (2005)
But she also asks some questions of her own, such as “I have been obsessed with nuclear war and atomic bombs all my life; maybe it’s time I ask why”.
As Salverson tells us about her travels and research, over the course of the ten years that she worked on this project, she also recounts her own life and the things she has experienced that have gotten her this far, as well as the things that have gotten her stuck. One of the reasons I love this memoir is her honesty about the personal journey this project has inspired her to take, and the bits of wisdom she has figured out along the way.
It isn’t only passing on a story that matters; I have to let the story change me.
As I make sense of my own life, I am better prepared to witness the lives of others.
Stories are power, and the choice of what is or is not shared is deliberate.
Family secrets hide within us, sometimes for generations…
The willingness to feel deeply comes with a price. Perhaps this is why we resist feeling at all.
I wanted to save the world but I failed to see its beauty. This strikes me now as odd. What was it I wanted to save?
Salverson takes us to all the stops on the “atomic highway” where we learn about the people she has met or heard stories about; The Dene who were unknowingly a part of the devastation in Japan, the atomic bomb scientists in Los Alamos and the pilot of the plane that dropped it, the residents of Port Hope who later discovered that “hundreds of buildings in town were constructed with contaminate material”, and the Japanese who were the victims of the bomb but also perpetrators of other means of violence during the war. All of these communities suffer from intergenerational trauma for being a part of the atomic bomb puzzle in some way.
As Salverson nears the end of her ‘atomic journey’ she becomes “determined to find what is life-giving in the stories and communities” she encounters. She wants to look “beyond the trauma” to the goodness and hope she has found at every turn of her journey. On her final trip to Déline in 2013, she is able to bring these stories of hope and life back with her to the place where it all started.
In the modern world, we find our way home through the work of mourning – we grieve, we face ghosts, we learn to surrender what is lost and embrace new life… The losses that mourning makes us work through are not only personal; they are tragedies that belong to our communities, our cultures. We are shaped by everything that touches us. Grief and joy bind us with the same thread. The act of mourning is a double act, intimate and public, private and political. The personal and political stories in this book are not parallel; they are inseparable.
Further Reading and Watching:
Village of Widows – Peter Blow’s 1999 Documentary
The Highway of the Atom by Peter van Wyck, who began this journey with Salverson before going their separate ways
Radiance by Shaena Lambert – mentioned in the memoir as a novel Julie Salverson loved, about a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing
The Dark Weaver and Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter by Laura Salverson, who is Julie Salverson’s grandmother and the first woman to win the Governor General’s Award for both fiction (1937) and nonfiction 1939)
Julie Salverson’s publications and recognition
*Thank you to Wolsak & Wynn for providing me with a review copy of this book!