March 27, 2017
A Ten-year Old Learns the Simplicity of the Nuclear Age: Julia Alvarez’s “Snow”
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and National Medal of the Arts honoree for 2014, was born in New York City, but spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic.
Her essay, “Snow” looks back at the time when she returned with her family to New York in 1960. Alvarez wrote the essay at the request of an editor of the Northwest Review for a special issue on The Nuclear Age.
How does one write a personal essay on a looming potential nuclear holocaust? What personal experience is there to call upon? Instead of writing an essay full of dire warnings and helpless end-of-the-world despair, Alvarez looks over her assigned topic through the eyes of a child.
By Julia Alvarez
In the summer of 1960 my family emigrated to the United States, fleeing the tyrant Trujillo. In New York we found a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look like peculiar dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot, especially my grandmotherly fifth grade teacher, Sister Zoe.
As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children, so that Sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, corn flakes, subway, snow.
Soon I picked up enough English to understand holocaust was in the air. Sister Zoe explained to a wide-eyed classroom what was happening in Cuba. Russian missiles were being assembled, trained supposedly on New York City. Kennedy, looking worried too, was on the television at home, explaining we might have to co to war.
At school, we had air raid drills. An ominous bell would go off and we’d file into the hall, fall to the floor, cover our heads with our coats, and imagine our hair falling out, the bones in our arms going soft. At home, Mother and I said a rosary every night for world peace. I heard new vocabulary: nuclear bomb, radioactive, Third World War. Sister Zoe explained how it would happen. She drew a picture of a mushroom on the blackboard and dotted a flurry of chalk marks for the dusty fallout that would kill us all.
The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I stepped outside. One morning as I sat daydreaming out the window I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn—random at first, and then lots and lots. I shrieked, “The bomb, the bomb!”
Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. A few girls began to cry.
But suddenly, Sister’s shocked look faded. “Why, dear child, that’s snow!”
“Snow,” I repeated. I looked out the window warily. All my life I had heard about the white crystals that fell out of American skies in the winter. From my desk I watched the fine powder dust the sidewalk and parked cars below. Each flake was different, Sister Zoe had said, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful. Northwest Review, 22. 1,2 (1984).
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