The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Denise Kiernan, 2013
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Mud and secrecy are the two most salient facts of this engaging history of the women who thronged to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. Thousands of them came—for good-paying jobs, adventure, or to follow husbands. They had no idea what they would be doing—or what they were working on once they got here. (They were enriching uranium.)
They slogged barefoot through mud (often knee-deep), worked hard, kept their heads down and their mouths shut. Their efforts, rarely acknowledged, helped bring about the end of World War II...and the world's deadliest weapon.
We follow nine women as they travel to Oak Ridge and master difficult jobs. Some find boyfriends, get married, and have babies. But the demand for secrecy—enforced with barbed wire fences, body and car checks, or swift dismissal if caught uttering the wrong word—takes its toll. Spontaneity, trust, and intimacy become casualties of their war.
If you've read The Help or The Warmth of Other Suns, you'll recognize the Jim Crow conditions that prevailed for African Americans at Oak Ridge. Segregation and subpar living conditions were the reward for long hours and patriotic duty. It makes for hard reading, as does the general attitude toward all women, black and white.
Oak Ridge sprang from the mud up, growing to 75,000 in three years and using more electricity than New York City. It boasted, among other things, the largest factory under one roof (44 football fields long). Interspersed throughout the book are chapters on what was going on in those giant factories and labs. I enjoyed the bit of science (and scientific history), but some may not, and those sections can be skimmed/skipped.
In all, Denise Kiernan provides a highly readable, well researched history of the women behind the atomic bomb, placing her story within the larger context of a nation at war. The end of her book explores the reactions of a triumphal nation—we had won the war but were only beginning to learn the costs of the weapon we had wrought.
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