Bestselling author Steve Sheinkin is best known for his 2012 book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, which was a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal. Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown is another engrossing work of nonfiction that reads like a page-turning spy thriller as it takes up the issue of nuclear weapons and international politics in a wide-ranging, information-packed account of the Cold War, including the development of the hydrogen bomb and the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States that nearly erupted into war during the Cuban missile crisis.
Sheinkin clearly knows this terrain like the back of his hand, and his narrative jumps nimbly from Soviet spy Rudolf Abel’s secretive life in New York City (which will remind adult readers of the popular FX show “The Americans”), to the rise of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev after the death of Josef Stalin, to the scientists developing the hydrogen bomb, and finally to President John F. Kennedy as he faced a terrifying standoff in October 1962. The Cuban missile crisis, Sheinkin observes, “was a bit like a chess match between grandmasters.” As he depicts the conflict between two world powers, even readers familiar with the details of the crisis and its resolution will find themselves on the edge of their seats.
Although Fallout’s primary narrative ends there, Sheinkin follows up on the players in an epilogue, where he also includes a personal touch. He reflects on how, as a teen, he fully expected that he would experience nuclear war before he graduated from high school.
In short chapters written in his signature energetic style, Sheinkin provides vivid details that keep interest high, such as 13 year-old paperboy Jimmy Bozart’s discovery of a nickel with a secret code hidden inside or the intricate tradecraft practiced by two Soviet agents as they jump out of subway cars at the last minute to lose a tail while en route to a secret meeting at the Bronx Zoo. (Who would have thought the Bronx Zoo was a rendezvous point for spies?) Even minor characters on this international chess board stand out. Sheinkin expertly balances action, historical context and the events of his narrative. Meticulously researched, Fallout includes copious source notes and an extensive bibliography.
Fallout is a compelling read that provides a riveting picture of the events of the Cold War. It’s the work of a nonfiction master at his best.