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Review: ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ by Denise Kiernan

Review: ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ by Denise Kiernan post image

Title: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Author: Denise Kiernan
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Touchstone
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★☆

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.

Other Reviews: Devourer of BooksThe Literary OmnivorePopcorn Reads | Readin’ and Dreamin’ | Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • jenn aka the picky girl March 28, 2013, 7:50 am

    I’ve been waiting for your review of this since I first heard you were reading it. This is SO my kind of nonfiction. Great review, and I love what you mention discussing the structure and narrative choice. Can’t wait to read it!

    • Kim March 28, 2013, 8:37 pm

      The structure of this one was so neat! I wouldn’t have thought to do it the way she does, which is why it stood out to me. I hope you love this one!

  • Jennifer March 28, 2013, 8:42 am

    I’m wild about narrative nonfiction and this sounds like it is right up my alley. Awesome! Great review as usual 🙂 I’m going to look for this one asap!

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) March 28, 2013, 12:13 pm

    This sounds really good! I’m extra excited because the author is doing an event here.

    • Kim March 28, 2013, 8:38 pm

      That’s great. She’s an author I’d love to meet. I would love to hear more personal stories about the women she profiled in this book.

  • River City Reading March 28, 2013, 5:00 pm

    Yes! This sounds great, definitely need to read it!

  • Ali March 28, 2013, 6:12 pm

    This sounds fascinating. A piece of American history I never thought about. Thanks for the review!

  • Sheila (Book Journey) March 29, 2013, 8:32 am

    This sounds wonderful! I am going to look into this one. This is my kind of book.

  • Allison @ The Book Wheel March 29, 2013, 9:30 pm

    The author was on Jon Stewart this week and I’m looking forward to reading this one. I’m glad you liked it!

    • Kim April 1, 2013, 2:51 pm

      Cool! The boyfriend and I catch up on Jon Stewart on Hulu, but usually skip the interviews. i’ll have to find this one.

  • Melinda March 31, 2013, 5:15 am

    Loved your review. The novel sounds interesting, and I might just add it to my ever growing TBR list!

  • susan March 31, 2013, 1:09 pm

    Yeah this one interests me, especially after I heard the author talking about it on PBS’s NewsHour last week. Sounds fascinating. cheers. http://www.thecuecard.com/

    • Kim April 1, 2013, 2:50 pm

      I’d love to see some interviews with her. I think the story of how she got this story would be really interesting.

  • Aarti March 31, 2013, 8:26 pm

    I love all the women’s history books coming out that share how much of an impact they had on important world events- this sounds great 🙂

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) April 1, 2013, 5:46 pm

    After reading Rhapsody In Books’ review and now yours, I know I have to read this one. I’m always looking for non-fiction that isn’t dry, and this one sounds like it fits the bill. Great review!

    • Kim April 3, 2013, 7:41 pm

      Wonderful, I hope you enjoy it!

  • liz April 2, 2013, 10:19 am

    Thanks for the review. I have seen it at the library recently, and have picked it up and put it down quite a lot. Next time, I will pick it up. Thanks for the reccie!
    liz in texas