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 U.S. history.
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.
As part of my attempt to widen my reading scope, I started on the non-fiction journey with this book. From the synopsis I felt it would cover a lot of my interests; WWII, women’s roles during that time and the uncovering of a war work that was kept secret at the time.
In a lot of senses this book did hit all those things on the head, but it still felt lacking in a way that I could not quite put my finger on. Covering a variety of young, and not so young, women from a variety of societal and ethnic backgrounds this book managed to paint a very real picture of what life must have been like living and working on a top-secret compound in the middle of nowhere. Although no one woman’s life was written about in detail and depth, I felt that this did not detract from the book in any way as I felt to have done so would most likely have resulted in the omission of something else.
In this books pages the reader can learn about the process of both thought and scientific work that led up to the deployment of fat man and little boy, and the scientific parts of the book that traces the journey and developed of tubealloy, as it was called, is informative and educational without being dry and dusty; not being a chemistry or engineering buff myself I found I learnt a lot from these parts of the book.
There are some wonderful black and white photographs in this book that help illustrate the vastness of the place called Oak Ridge, and also some then and now pictures of three of the women mentioned in the book. It would have been nice to see some now pictures of the site to see what had become of the place rather than have to do an internet search to satisfy my curiosity.
It is apparent from the way in which the book is written, that the Author spent an extensive amount of time research the topic and talking with those who were there at the time; I wonder if my feeling of something being lacking in its pages, and the reason for my 3 thumbs review, being a result of some information that would have filled these ‘gaps’ still being sealed to the researcher. Another reason for my 3 thumbs review was the random and rather silly typos that appeared in the book. These could easily have been picked up by a more skilled proof reader and editor, and lifted my review rating.
Despite the low rating I would still recommend this book to any reader interested in this era, and wanting a satisfying and easy read.