Girls of Atomic City (Kiernan)

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Denise Kiernan, 2013
Simon & Schuster
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451617535

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 US history.

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians—many of them young women from small towns across the South—were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work.

Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war—when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed.

Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it—women who are now in their eighties and nineties—The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage.

Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country’s history. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 31, 1968
Education—M.A., New York University
Currently—lives in Asheville, North Carolina

Denise Kiernan is an American journalist, producer and author who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She has authored several history titles, including Signing Their Rights Away (with Joseph D'Agnese, 2011), The Girls of Atomic City (2013), and The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home (2017)

Kiernan graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts with an emphasis in music. She earned a BA degree from the Washington Square and University College of Arts & Science in 1991 and an MA from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development of New York University in 2002.

Kiernan started out in journalism, and as a freelance writer, her work appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, and Ms. Magazine among other publications. She served as the head writer for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire during its first season. She has produced pieces for ESPN and MSNBC.

Additionally, she has authored several popular history titles and ghost written books for athletes, entrepreneurs and actresses. Her most recent book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, traces the story of the women who worked on the Manhattan Project, unknowingly helping to create the fuel for the world's first atomic bomb. The book became a New York Times best seller in its first week of publication.

Personal life
Kiernan is married to author and journalist Joseph D'Agnese, with whom she co-authored several books including Stuff Every American Should Know (2012); Signing Their Rights Away (2011); Signing Their Lives Away (2009). (From Wiipedia. Retrieved 2/21/2014 .)

Book Reviews
The image of Rosie the Riveter—women filling in at factories to help the war effort—is well known. But women also assisted on the Manhattan Project, signing up for secret work in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to help build the atomic bomb. Kiernan looks at the lives and contributions of these unsung women who worked in jobs from secretaries to chemists.
New York Post

Fascinating.... Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research.... Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.... The fascinating story of the Manhattan Project has been told often, and often told well.... But given the project's significant and lasting impact, there's plenty more mining to be done, and Denise Kiernan has found a rich vein in The Girls of Atomic City. Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.
Scott Martelle - Washington Post

Kiernan…brings a unique and personal perspective to this key part of American history.... Instead of the words of top scientists and government officials, Kiernan recounts the experiences of factory workers, secretaries, and low-level chemists in a town that housed at its peak 75,000 people trained not to talk about what they knew or what they did. She combines their stories with detailed reporting that provides a clear and compelling picture of this fascinating time.
Boston Globe

Much was at stake, and in The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan tells a fascinating story about ordinary women who did the extraordinary. It may be difficult for today's readers to imagine so many people united behind cause and country to do what the women and men at Oak Ridge's Clinton Engineer Works did in just two years.
Patty Rhule - USA Today

Kiernan’s book, the result of seven years of research and interviews with the surviving 'girls,' sparkles with their bright, WWII slang and spirit, and takes readers behind the scenes into the hive-like encampments and cubicles where they spent their days and nights.... The Girls of Atomic City brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kiernan’s focus is on the intimate and often strange details of work and life at Oak Ridge. It’s told in a novelistic style and is an intimate look at the experiences of the young women who worked at Oak Ridge and the local residents whose lives were changed by the presence of the project.
San Francisco Book Review

As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us—their children, grandchildren, and greats—to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation's women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else's. Ever. Anywhere.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Kiernan's interviewees describe falling in love and smuggling in liquor in tampon boxes. But like everyone else, those lives were disrupted by news of Hiroshima. "Now you know what we've been doing all this time," said one of the scientists ... [An] intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history.
Publishers Weekly

Living and working with thousands of others in a secret city built almost overnight, those involved in the "Project" were unaware that they were contributing to the most revolutionary scientific discovery of the 20th century.... Kiernan capably captures the spirit of women's wartime opportunities and their sacrifices in what is ultimately a captivating narrative. —Kathryn Wells, Fitchburg State Univ. Lib., MA
Library Journal

A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.... The author parallels her account of the construction of Oak Ridge with chapters on the development of the science that made nuclear fission possible.... An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Denise Kiernan explains in an author’s note, “The information in this book is compartmentalized, as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project.” (page 18) How does the book manage to recreate the workers’ experience of months-long ignorance, and the shock of finding out what they were working on?

2. Consider the losses of lives, land, and community that resulted from the Manhattan Project. What were some of the sacrifices that families and individuals made in their efforts to end the war? How do these losses compare to the gains of salary, solidarity, and peace? Do you think the ends of the Project justify the means? Why or why not?

3. Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices—including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship—that families of that era made? Why or why not?

4. Consider the African-American experience at Oak Ridge. What kinds of discrimination did Kattie and her family face? How did Kattie manage to make the best of her substandard living conditions? What role do you think race played in the medical experimentation on Ebb Cade?

5. Helen was recruited to spy on her neighbors at home and at work. Discuss the ethical implications of this request. Was it fair, necessary, or wise to ask ordinary workers to spy? Why do you think Helen never mailed any of the top-secret envelopes she was given?

6. Although the Clinton Engineer Works was, in many ways, a tightly controlled social experiment, the military didn’t account for women’s impact on the community: “a sense of permanence. Social connectivity. Home.” (page 135) Consider the various ways that the women of Oak Ridge tried to make themselves at home. Which of their efforts succeeded, and which failed? Why were some women so successful at making Oak Ridge home while others were not, were depressed, looked forward to leaving?

7. Consider the legacy of President Truman, who made the decision to use atomic weaponry for the first time. How do Americans seem to regard Truman’s decision today? How does Truman’s legacy compare to other wartime presidents, such as George W. Bush or Lyndon B. Johnson?

8. “The most ambitious war project in military history rested squarely on the shoulders of tens of thousands of ordinary people, many of them young women.” (page 159) Compare how The Girls of Atomic City contrasts “ordinary people” to the extraordinary leaders behind the atomic bomb: the General, the Scientist, and the Engineer. Are the decision-makers portrayed as fully as the workers? Do the workers get as much credit as the leaders?

9. Kiernan sets The Girls of Atomic City entirely in the past, recreating the workers’ experiences from her interviews with the surviving women. How would this book have differed if the interviews from the present day were included? Does Kiernan succeed in immersing us in the era of World War II? Explain your answer.

10. Among the workers at Oak Ridge, whose story did you find most fascinating? Which of these women do you think Kiernan brought to life most vividly, and how?

11. Discuss the scenes in the book that take place far from Oak Ridge, Tennessee: scientific discoveries in Europe, secret tests in New Mexico, political meetings in Washington, and post-atomic devastation in Japan. How does this broad view of the bomb’s creation and aftermath enrich the story of wartime life in Oak Ridge?

12. Discuss how various contributors to the Manhattan Project felt about the use of the atomic bomb, including General Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and Harry S. Truman. What regrets did they express about the bomb’s results, if any? Do you think a weapon of that magnitude could or should be used in present-day warfare? Why or why not?

13. Kiernan writes, “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.” (page 412) What lasting contributions to society have come out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee? Why is it difficult to celebrate or commemorate the work that has been done in that secret city?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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