Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War IIgirls of atomic cityBy Denise KiernanTouchstone, 2013The “battle of the laboratories” raged between the United States and Nazi Germany almost from the first moment of World War II, with both nations striving first to understand and then to master the very forces of nature itself – atomic energy, which both Axis and Allied scientists sought to weaponize. Readers will be familiar with the American effort, led by Robert Oppenheimer and centered around the Manhattan Project. They’ll be less familiar with the innocuous-sounding town of Oak Ridge, located in the heart of the Tennessee Appalachians – at least until they read Denise Kiernan’s piously constructed but undeniably readable new book The Girls of Atomic City, which tells the story of Oak Ridge with contagious enthusiasm.The place was almost entirely an invention of the United States government; the families previously occupying the land where the government wanted to build a new town were summarily booted off their land, and where they’d been living a new town sprang up, eventually becoming a sprawling complex employing thousands of workers, many of whom – the ‘girls’ in Kiernan’s title – were recruited in 1942-43 with the lure of patriotic service and good wages, and all of whom were kept in the dark about just what their jobs at Clinton Engineer Works (informally known as “the Reservation”) would entail.The most sensitive parts of their jobs involved enriching uranium for the atomic bomb experiments then taking place in New Mexico, but almost all the separate components of that work were compartmentalized to prevent workers from connecting the dots (overly inquisitive individuals were escorted off-site)(Kiernan has some fun implying they were, if you take her meaning, escorted all the way off-site). Instead, the young women of Oak Ridge, provided with their own bus system, their own post office and stores, their own recreational facilities for dancing or movies, concentrated on the same kinds of things their peers were concentrating on outside the government bubble: clubs, socializing, and dancing – all of which was rendered more difficult than usual by the rations of war:

Some women wore boots to wade through the mud, then changed into dancing shoes upon arrival at the dance. Any pairs of stockings that women did have were safely guarded, not to be sacrificed too freely for a mere dance. Stockings were just one of the fashion casualties of war. Zippers took a hike overseas as well – nimble buttoning fingers prevailed. And lipstick was now carefully removed from cardboard or plastic containers and applied gingerly with fingers since many of the factories that had manufactured the makeup’s metal cases had shifted to constructing shell casings or other munitions.

Kiernan is unfailingly winning when it comes to these social dimensions of her story; in well-chosen vignette after vignette, she brings the human side of Oak Ridge forward:

Trips to crowded stores could take hours with babies in tow. And mud, always mud. Carriage wheels – or wagons, for those who couldn’t afford a proper carriage – sunk deep into sludge and bumped endlessly over unfinished surfaces, rousing even the soundest of sleepers. Evenings, when they saw their husbands, there was precious little to talk about.“How was your day?”This simple phrase, uttered by countless spouses since the dawn of the workaday week, took on an entirely different meaning here. I know you can’t really tell me how your day was in even the vaguest of terms, but I feel like I should ask you anyway.

Naturally, that secrecy was blown wide open in August of 1945 when atomic bombs were detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ‘girls’ began realizing what they’d been doing all those months in the insufferable heat and humidity of Oak Ridge. Kiernan has done future historians an inestimable service by so tirelessly interviewing and re-interviewing so many of the Reservation’s surviving workers. And more importantly, she’s done readers a big favor by shaping those workers’ stories into such a spirited, entertaining narrative. The Girls of Atomic City can’t be anything more than a footnote-study in the literature of WWII, but it’s a hell of a lively footnote, well worth the time of every period aficionado – and plenty of general readers too.