Title: The Girls of Atomic City
Author: Denise Kiernan
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Adult
Page Count: 400
Rating: [4/5 stars]
The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history.
The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, it didn’t appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships—and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men!
But against this vibrant wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work—even the most innocuous details—was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb “Little Boy” was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb.
Though the young women originally believed they would leave Oak Ridge after the war, many met husbands there, made lifelong friends, and still call the seventy-year-old town home. The reverberations from their work there—work they didn’t fully understand at the time—are still being felt today. In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan traces the astonishing story of these unsung WWII workers through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is history and science made fresh and vibrant—a beautifully told, deeply researched story that unfolds in a suspenseful and exciting way. (summary from goodreads)
Before hearing about THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY, I had never heard of Oak Ridge, or knew how the atomic bomb was created. I just knew it had been used to bring about the end of World War II. I did know a little about the science behind it, because I’ve read a few books on Marie Curie and the scientific world at that time, but not a lot.
THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY is a book I savored. In fact, I took longer reading it than I should have because I didn’t want it to end. I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a non-fiction book from cover to cover. I even found the notes at the end, that gave details on interviews with the women, to be interesting. The majority of the book reads like historical fiction, but even better because you know it’s true! The only parts of the book that were hard for me to get through were the Tubealloy sections; they were in a different font I found hard on the eyes, and I ended up skimming them.
The book is told from the viewpoints of a handful of women whose jobs varied from secretary to janitor to chemist. All of the women had different backgrounds, from girls fresh off the farm and out of high school to college graduates. I felt like I really came to know the women. I was sad to leave them behind when the book finished, because I got the feeling that each of them led fascinating lives even after the end of Oak Ridge as a production site for tubealloy (enriched uranium).
Oak Ridge — a secret, government run project — would never happen today. It’s impossible. Smartphones and social media and the Internet would blow the secret. I also don’t think people share the same patriotism and sense of duty to the U.S. that the WWII generation had (this is MY opinion). Celia, one of the women in the book, took a job at Oak Ridge without knowing where she would be going or what she would be doing. She just got on the train she was told to get on. I know I never would have done that! “[...] all the women on the train had been told that their new jobs served one purpose only: to bring a speedy and victorious end to the war. That was enough for her (p. 7).”
Throughout the book, I wondered how the women who lived and worked at Oak Ridge would feel about the use of the atomic bomb. The author makes sure to answer that question, in their own words. As the author says about her work, “The challenge in telling the story of the atomic bomb is one of nuance, requiring thought and sensitivity and walking a line between commemoration and celebration (p. 313).” I think Denise Kiernan more than succeeded in that challenge, and did an admirable job of melding personal stories with information about how Oak Ridge started and how it operated, as well as its impact on American history.
I highly recommend THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY. The book takes a secret part of American history and brings it into the spotlight. After reading it, I can only wonder what other secrets about the atomic bomb are still classified. It’s the sort of history book I like to read. Instead of focusing on big name people, the author told the story of the average, everyday American woman. The women in this book will stay with me for a long time; for me, it’s ordinary women like the ones featured in THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY that make history real.