The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
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.
I anxiously anticipated reading The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and I am delighted to report that I was not disappointed. In The Girls of Atomic City, Kiernan introduces us to a wide range of woman who worked at Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This self-contained community was part of the Manhattan Project and home to a top secret uranium project. Most of these woman had no idea what project they were working on until after the fact. The nickname "Atomic City" didn't exist until after WW II ended.
Kiernan introduces us to nine women who worked at Oak Ridge. They run the gamut in their education and experience. There was a chemist, statistician, secretaries, technicians, a nurse, and a janitor. They were white and black; married and unmarried. Kiernan cover's their stories while also following the development of atomic fusion. All the women knew that they were part of a secret project to help the war, but most had no idea what they were helping develop. It was a job and a good paycheck, which represented a way for the women to help themselves and, in many cases, their families, during difficult years. Part of what the women were also dealing with was the societal expectations of the times. Two examples include: women were not considered head of their households; black married couples were not allowed to live together.
Since The Girls of Atomic City cover's women's history during WW II, and the formation of the atomic bomb, it belongs in both of these nonfiction collections. Kiernan's writing style made this nonfiction narrative read like a novel as she divulges the stories of these strong women and what they did in Oak Ridge while simultaneously covering the making of the bomb. Kiernan includes pictures, the cast of characters, maps, an epilogue, notes, and an index, all additions that are highly valued and appreciated by this reader.
Very Highly Recommended
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Touchstone via Netgalley for review purposes.