Title: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Author: Denise Kiernan
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: At the end of World War II, more than 75,000 people lived and worked in the makeshift town built at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The bus system to take the thousands of workers from the hastily-built barracks, trailers, and homes was one of the 10 largest in the United States. There were 163 miles of wooden sidewalks, 300 miles of roads, and 17 cafeterias. The compound consumed more electricity than New York City, but didn’t show up on a single map.
No one outside Oak Ridge knew what was going on at the facility. And for the most part, no one inside knew either. But they weren’t supposed to know, and weren’t supposed to think or talk about their work at the end of the day. As a sign outside the facility gently reminded them: “What you see here. What you do here. What you hear here. When you leave here. Let it stay here.”
Despite the secrecy, thousands of women were enticed to join The Project by the promise of good wages and the promise that the work they were doing would help end World War II. In The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan tells the story of Oak Ridge, one of the three sites involved with producing the atomic bomb, through the stories of the women who worked and lived there.
The Girls of Atomic City is a wonderful read that balances big stories and small stories to get a full picture of a place and time that is unlikely to ever be repeated. Near the beginning of the book Kiernan mentions that the information in the book is compartmentalized. I loved this narrative decision, which involved alternating chapters between life at Oak Ridge and the history of the Manhattan Project. It helped subtly mimic the way information was shared with the residents of Oak Ridge during The Project — the minimum needed for an individual to do their job.
The strength of the book, really, is the personalities of the women themselves. The nine “main characters,” if you will, came from different backgrounds and worked all across the Oak Ridge facility. Their stories about why they joined The Project, what they learned and knew, the friends and boyfriends they met, and how they moved on afterwards help personalize a historical moment that we mostly knew through the famous men who managed it. I loved that part of the book, and really felt I got to know these women throughout the story.
This book was a particularly fun read shortly after Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days, another excellent read about women doing impressive things at a time they weren’t expected to. It also reminded me a lot of Kristen Iversen’s wonderful memoir Full Body Burden about growing up in the shadow of a nuclear production facility. I hope you will give it a try!
P.S. If you do decide to pick up this book, make sure you skim through the notes section. Kiernan includes some wonderful extra details with her citations including how she first met each of the women she interviewed that I thought were a lot of fun to read.
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