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The New York Times bestselling book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan is a narrative based on the true happenings of the US Manhattan Project in the early 40’s. The book introduces several characters, who report on the experiences that they had while working for a secret project that they were told would end the war. This book is particularly interesting for readers who are curious about histories focused on women, or those who would like to learn more about the development of the atomic bomb.
In 1942, the US government created the secret town of Oak Ridge in Tennessee for a single purpose: the enrichment of uranium with the isotope U-235, at concentrations 80% higher than found in the natural element. Even today, enriched uranium is often referred to as ‘oralloy’, which is a shortened version of the codename ‘Oak Ridge Alloy’, referring to the location of the uranium enrichment plants during the Manhattan Project. About 75,000 people were moved to this constructed city, which was not marked on the world map. Most of the workers were not scientists or high-ranking officials, but ordinary factory workers, secretaries and low-level chemists. All of these workers were hoping to contribute to the ending of a war in which, for most, their spouses or relatives were fighting. This book reveals a chapter of US history that seemed to have been forgotten, but had a major impact on World War II and the development of atomic weapons. Some of these women—now in their nineties—stayed in Oak Ridge, looking back on a life in which they have struggled to come to terms with the role that they played in helping to create the atomic bomb.
Thanks to Kiernan’s style of writing, this historical book reads more like a novel. She uncovers the story of nine women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, while simultaneously describing how the atomic bomb was developed in a fairly scientific style. All of the women deliver an individual perspective on their work and contribution towards the creation of the most deadly weapon of the time. Although none of them knew exactly what they were working on, the rumours were spreading and finally, after the first atomic bomb was dropped—Little Boy in Hiroshima—the back-fence talk was confirmed.
In addition to this uncertainty and secretiveness, the women of Oak Ridge had to deal with racial and gender-based segregation, combined with the daily fear of losing their loved ones at the front. Kiernan manages to tell the story from the viewpoint of several different women, ranging from scientists to a janitor. A female scientist gets the ‘little woman’ treatment, and a local girl discovers that her boss shows her off to other workers because he likes her accent. An African-American janitor is forced to live separately from her husband and is not allowed to bring her children to the complex, but somehow finds a way to keep here dignity. All of these voices, based on the many interviews conducted by the author, deliver this historical development in a very personal way.
The organisation of the book can be quite confusing, since the stories of each character are spread throughout the book. This can make keeping up with the main characters difficult. Although the reader has the feeling that the subject was researched very accurately, the delivery of some scientific facts can make it feel as though they have been randomly thrown into the narrative because the author is reluctant to leave any information out. Nevertheless, none of these facts are difficult to grasp and any layperson can understand the physical and chemical processes described by the author. Furthermore, Kiernan includes a map of the facilities and the cast of characters, which is very helpful for keeping an overview of all the different stories happening at the same time. The endnotes of the book are also useful, since they give additional background information obtained during the interviews that were conducted by the author.
This book delivers personal stories of a very important time in history and therefore preserves an important message for future generations. I would recommend The Girls of Atomic City to a wide group of readers, including anyone interested in history and World War II, memoir readers, feminists and science enthusiasts. Anyone who enjoyed this book, or is searching for similar reading material, should take a look at the books Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin and American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird.
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