by Sharma Shields
In 1944, Mildred Groves, Star Pupil (of six) at the Omak Secretarial School, becomes a secretary for Dr. Phillip Hall at the top-secret World War II facility Hanford in South Central Washington state. Her new job represents not just a chance to contribute to the war effort but also a way to escape her domineering mother and sister. But Mildred is not just an excellent employee–she possesses an unusual gift. She receives visions that foretell the future. As a child, her visions earned her the moniker “Mad Mildred,” and she learned to be silent and keep her premonitions secret. But with production of “the product” speeding up, Mildred has renewed visions of overwhelming death and destruction. She is no longer able to remain silent, yet no one believes her prognostications. Again, people see her as “Mad Mildred.” Still, her visions gain strength until she must act to stop them to save herself if not the world.
Unusual in its combination of historical fiction and fantasy, The Cassandra has a number of strengths. Before reading this book, I didn’t know about the Hartford facility, and here, it is realistically depicted, including the intensive secrecy, the racial segregation, the divisions based on gender, and the devastation to the community and the environment. The Cassandra also offers a rich palette of symbolism, using the wind, rivers, birds, and animals to convey messages of fear, punishment, and overwhelming emotion. Mildred in particular struggles against the expectations of gender and the power and violence embodied by men, at times resistant, at times embracing it.
An interesting character, Mildred begins the novel with wide-eyed, naive optimism, but as she learns more about the “product” and experiences more visions and the accompanying dismissal of them, she becomes cynical and isolated, mistrustful of even her closest friends. Her language takes on a harsher tone, and her lost innocence is reflective in her coarse words, including the integration of such terms as fuck, shit, and asshole. Her withdrawal becomes accentuated when she falls victim to violence and then perpetuates that violence on others and herself. Some of the other characters are more one-dimensional, especially the villains in the story, and I wish they’d have been developed more realistically, although others reveal unexpected depth and compassion.
When Mildred experiences her visions, she encounters shape-shifters and tricksters, and the language of the novel slides to metaphorical. At times, this works, but at times, the combination of historical fiction and fantasy have an uneasy alliance, and the book I think struggles to integrate them. Still, the visions are haunting, and in one in particular, from the point of view of a young girl, readers see them impact of the atomic bombs on the hibakusha, the Japanese survivors affected by radiation poisoning, in a harrowing way that will remain with me for a long time.
The Cassandra questions how women or disenfranchised can make a difference when their wisdom is ignored and challenges a particularly masculine relationship with the world. While it doesn’t provide answers, it offers a rich tapestry to consider. Fans of The Future Home of a Living God and Woman on the Edge of Time will be particularly pleased with this book as will readers of feminist fiction.
Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt & Company for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.