Well-researched and -written history of the community at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, from the perspective of the women who worked there. I was fascinated by how they built the facility and town to support it in such a short amount of time, and how they managed to keep what they were doing there a secret. Workers knew the tasks to do their job, and that was it – why they were doing what they were doing was kept hidden, and anything beyond what they had to know was also a secret. Curiosity was not welcome.
By featuring women who performed many different jobs, Kiernan is able to touch on how different the experience was depending on what you did (and especially depending on what race you were). I also appreciated how she gave a brief follow up on the women she featured prominently – telling what they did after the war and a brief glimpse at what happened with the rest of their lives.
I have almost zero interest in the background of the atomic program, and appreciated how Kiernan worked it into the book – most of the more technical details were kept in small sections inbetween the main chapters, and it was easy to skim them without missing any crucial information for the rest of the story. It’s there for anyone who wants it, but if the background information doesn’t interest you, it’s simple to skip.
If you’re interested in World War II and the American homefront, women’s history, or the development of the atomic bomb this book should contain material of interest.
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.
For another look at the homefront during World War Two, try Once Upon a Town – a heart-warming and amazing account of the town of North Platte, Nebraska, that met every troop train that passed through the city. Coffee, food, and encouragement were offered to every serviceman – more than six million GIs by the end of the war.
To see all the books featured in 31 Days of Great Nonfiction, go to the series page.
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