The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan is a collection of vignettes about the lives of young women working in a secret city during WWII in which a component of the work needed to produce the atomic bomb occurred. The group’s interest in reading this novel stems from our city, Knoxville, TN’s close proximity to Oak Ridge. Cars sold in Oak Ridge, frequently sport the slogan of “Sold in the Secret City.” Once a year, Oak Ridge celebrates their history with the The Secret City Festival. The festival offers public tours of the historic facilities, live music, crafts, tons of food, and is very family focused with designated areas available for youth and toddlers.
The Girls of Atomic City is very well researched and has a lot of fascinating information. Some of the scientific descriptions of the atomic bomb components and their creation is written in a language that I expect is above the understanding of most laypersons and took those of us with a strong scientific background a few readings to completely grasp. Insights into the feelings and conflicts arising in these young women as they struggled to understand their role in the war are raw and well described. Unfortunately, the many individual stories were disjointed and the book lacked cohesive flow.
Reasons to Read: This is an excellent read for history buffs, especially World War II enthusiasts that have some scientific background or strong interest. This is a unique resource describing the plight of women in Oak Ridge during World War II. There are very few alternative sources on this exact subject matter that are as complete or well documented.
Reasons to Pass: The book lacks cohesive flow and at times reads more like a history book than a novel.
Genre: Non-Fiction, Historical – World War II, Women’s Studies
Suggested Rating: PG-13 Descriptions are appropriately detailed and not overly graphic, but the book frankly discusses war.
Bottom Line: The subject of the book is fascinating and the information gathered is very worthy of review. Unfortunately, the book often reads more like assigned reading, rather than a novella.
Would you recommend this book to a friend? Yes, with reservations. This book will fit a unique audience interested in World War II and women’s interest groups, but it reads more like a textbook than a novel and may be hard to complete for those reading strictly for enjoyment. There are a ton of reviews out there of people who loved this book and although, I didn’t love it, I have a huge amount of respect for the accuracy and sheer amount of information compiled in this novel. If you aren’t sure whether or not you want to pursue reading more about this topic, try the following links for more information:
The Photography of Ed Westcott – official photographer for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge during World War II
The author’s page also indicates that The Girls of Atomic City is being made into a miniseries, which I’m very much looking forward to viewing.
From the Publisher:
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.