The Nuclear Age Summary & Study Guide

Tim O'Brien
This Study Guide consists of approximately 42 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Nuclear Age.
This section contains 910 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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The Nuclear Age Summary & Study Guide Description

The Nuclear Age Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Nuclear Age by Tim O'Brien.

The following edition of this book was used to write this study guide: O’Brien, Tim. The Nuclear Age. Penguin Books, 1996.

Note: this novel was originally published in 1985. Seeing as the novel takes place from 1958-1995, this means that the novel was written both as a record of history and as a projection of the future.

It is 1995 and William, a middle-aged man with a wife, Bobbi, and a 12-year-old daughter, Melinda, begins to dig a large hole in his backyard in the middle of the night. He is afraid of the threat of nuclear war, and wants to build a shelter for his family. In 1958, when William himself was 12 years old, and lived as an only child with his pleasant parents in small Fort Derry, Montana, one night he had built a fallout shelter out of the family’s Ping-Pong table in the basement. In high school, William becomes a loner, and attempts to stage elaborate phone calls to fake that he is going on dates. William’s parents eventually take him to a psychologist, Charles “Chuck” C. Adamson in nearby Helena. Although Chuck is very eccentric, and notably preoccupied with his own worries, the therapy seems to help William.

William goes to college at local Peverson State, which he is deeply unimpressed by as he pursues his academic passion, geology. William begins to silently hold a sign protesting the Vietnam War in front of the college’s cafeteria, and he is eventually joined by two like-minded friends, who are also social outcasts: Ollie Rafferty and Tina Roebuck. The gang is then joined by the popular Sarah Strouch, an attractive cheerleader who begins an unlikely relationship with William after they are coincidentally matched at a college mixer. The gang is also joined by the popular, soft-spoken linebacker Ned Rafferty. When everybody graduates college, Sarah goes to Florida, where she establishes shadowy anti-war connections in the Key West. When William is drafted, he dodges the draft -- with his parents’ help and support -- by joining Sarah and the rest of the gang there.

In 1995, Bobbi makes affirmative plans to leave William after he spends many weeks digging his hole. This prompts William to methodically nail wooden planks across the door and window of his master bedroom, where Bobbi and Melinda would sit to stay away from William. In 1969, shortly after arriving in Key West, the gang takes a boat ride to Cuba, where they are met by two passionate anti-war veterans named Ebenezer Keezer and Nethro. The two men lead the gang in a merciless boot camp, preparing them for the physical challenge of their upcoming vigilante, anti-war operations. At this time it is clear that William lacks the political convictions of his friends, and works for the group as a courier, a job that required almost daily flying across the country. While Sarah is still committed to their relationship, William is entranced with a flight attendant who he came across in his travels, named Bobbi.

In 1995, William drugs Bobbi and Melinda by putting sleeping pills in their drinks, which he has been handing to them, along with food, through a service hole he carved in the bedroom door. In 1971, William returns to Montana when his father passes away, and the gang watches his funeral from a nearby mountain, with binoculars. William then makes plans to move back to Montana, enlisting the unlikely help of his therapist Chuck. Throughout the seventies, William lives a quiet life, getting his master’s degree in geology. He turns himself in for draft dodging, and does not face any legal penalties.

In 1980, the gang visits William, and he takes them to a mountain where he had once camped with Sarah when they were in college. Thanks to his geology knowledge, William knows the mountain to be full of uranium. He buys the land at a modest price from the rancher who owns it, and proceeds to sell it to Texaco for $25 million, which the gang splits among themselves. Sarah then joins William on his globetrotting trip to find Bobbi, trying to convince him to stay with her. Their journey goes from Germany to Minnesota to New York City, where William finds Bobbi. As William and Bobbi quickly become married and move outside of Fort Derry, Sarah and Ned begin a relationship together as they continue to operate out of Key West.

In 1993, Bobbi suddenly leaves William and 10-year-old Melinda for two weeks, returning with no explanation. In December of that year, Sarah and Ned suddenly arrive at their house with a warhead: the gang has stolen it from the military, and now Sarah and Ned are hiding it from Ollie and Tina, as Ollie and Tina want to deploy it. After a few months, Sarah gradually dies from an untreated case of encephalitis, passing away in March. Ollie and Tina come to take the warhead in April, and die during a showdown with the military, over the warhead, that summer.

In 1995, William waits until the night and carries the drugged-asleep Bobbi and Melinda down to the bottom of the backyard hole, where he places them in hammocks he has set up. William rigs dynamite around the hole, sitting in it himself. Melinda stirs awake and, after talking with her dad, pointing out how sorry he’d be if he actually lit the fuse, he takes them up out of the hole, and Bobbi and Melinda shower and clean up.

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