Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The Girls of Atomic City
The untold story of the women who helped win World War II.
5 stars - thought provoking and very readable
ALR Blue - all people, no animals

I don't often read non-fiction because (a) I have trouble keeping track of people and dates and (b) my brain gets so stretched out of shape by work that I don't typically have the bandwidth to learn anything new during reading time. So I will start by saying The Girls of Atomic City will stretch the brain a bit, but it is so well written (and contains a character reference) that it was easy for me to read and enjoy.

The Girls of Atomic City focuses on the women working at the uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. The very fact of Oak Ridge was a revelation to me. I never knew.

Constructed on land the government confiscated from farmers (often with only a few weeks notice to vacate and questionable compensation), Oak Ridge was selected in 1942 as the likeliest location to carry out a massive (and secret) government project. At the height of operation, it housed over 70,000 workers, mostly women.

People were recruited from various walks of life and the word of the day was "keep your mouth shut." Each worker was provided with only enough information to do his or her specific task. No more. And woe be to anybody who attempted to find out more.

Locked in by armed guards and barbed wire, residents lived in slapdash housing units. Some single family, some dormitories. Spies were planted in the community to make sure everybody kept their traps shut. People disappeared without explanation. And nobody knew what was going on. Even chemists were kept focused on tasks isolated enough from what came before or after that they couldn't know the ultimate goal (except some sort of did as evidenced by the reference to uranium opening quite handily in the encyclopedia at the Oak Ridge library).

The whole enterprise was a bit chilling and it had an effect on the residents. A psychiatrist was eventually put on staff to manage the inevitable stress, depression, and anxiety that comes when even husbands and wives cannot have a "how was your day" chat. Information in and out was censored. Letters to home became almost indecipherable after the censors finished blacking out the most mundane items (like weather which could provide a hint of location).

Beyond the main topic, there is a wrenching portrayal of the treatment of blacks in America at the time. While white married partners could live together at Oak Ridge, black partners could not. Black residents lived in the worst of the housing and were banned from all activities such as dances and movie theaters. Separate cafeterias. Separate washrooms. They were also given the bottom of the barrel tasks like janitorial work. But even at that, the pay at Oak Ridge was generous enough to make it worthwhile for people to go there.

At least one black resident was used, unknowingly, as a Guinea pig by receiving radioactive injections rather than getting his broken bones set after he is injured in an automobile accident.

The entire book, while fascinating, was also very unsettling. Maybe because I did know where things were headed. They were headed towards the most horrific act of war ever perpetrated. Indeed, as the ultimate goal of Oak Ridge is at hand, Ms. Kiernan shares with us some of the anguish and indecision of scientists and politicians regarding use of the atom bomb. 

The discovery of atomic power was inevitable. Research papers had already discussed the powerful reactions possible as early as the late 1930's. The use of atomic power as a weapon of war might also have been inevitable as the Germans were quite close to building their own bomb right up until their defeat.

The Girls of Atomic City is worth reading for many reasons. It brings to life the people of the time and what their lives were like. It discusses the power of the government to keep secrets and touches on the willingness of people to put aside curiosity and ethical questions when they feel they are striving towards a cause of riotousness (and being paid well for same). It also questions the use of the bomb to end World War II. 

Now, a brief note on how I came upon this book. I was recently introduced to a book site called Bas Bleu. It's a quirky little bookstore that happens to have a book of the month club. I was intrigued as the titles all looked interesting and I had heard of none of the authors. I thought about doing the book a month thing, but they offered a discount for buying them all at once, so I did. I know, crazy. I didn't even check the library network first. Sometimes I'm just wild that way.


  1. I had actually been pondering getting this on audible, as it sounded rather interesting. I think I'll go ahead and get it, as I find not just the time period but the whole secrecy thing fascinating. Given how hard it is to sequester a jury these days, I can't imagine people putting up with this today (and yet people are just fine with drug tests... go figure).

    -Dr. Liz, who always has way more books than time!

  2. Wow! That sounds really interesting and unsettling at the same time. I'm glad you reviewed this one!

  3. hello mango momma its dennis the vizsla dog hay ar yoo shoor this is a fakchooal historee story and not wun abowt a feemayl sooperhero teem or sumthing like that??? i think dada is more likely to reed it if it is abowt sooperheros!!! altho if theez girls helpd win wurld war too then perhaps they kownt as sooperheros after all!!! happy noo yeer!!! ok bye

  4. We lived near Oak Ridge. It was laid out such that it was virtually invisible from the air, in case Germany was able to fly 500 miles inland from our coast without being detected. The Holiday Inn there still calls its restaurant "The Reactor Room", and its nuclear history abounds. This is another book I'd like to read.