Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City
I am shockingly ignorant on all subjects related to atomic energy, nuclear fission, and even the Manhattan Project. They represent subjects scientists, physic wizards, and history buffs would consider fundamental topics for a reasonably educated person, but alas I am not current. Worse still, while I KNEW these were holes in my knowledge, I literally had NO idea about the women who played a role in their development.
Have you ever heard of The Girls of Atomic City? No?
Well, then you're in for a treat if you pick up this week's book by Denise Kiernan. I wish all non-fiction books were written like this: smart, informative, and engaging. Not only is the story fascinating, it's also understandable.
Imagine these plot points:
The US government quietly acquires land in the middle of Tennessee and clears everyone off the land then builds a secret city, Oak Ridge.
Recruiters comb high and low for people willing to relocate to Oak Ridge without telling them where they are going.
Oak Ridge is mostly populated by women who work on projects which they don't understand and are effectively sequestered so they never discover what work they are producing.
Oak Ridge population peaks at 75,000 and until the bomb drops on Nagasaki, no one understands the scope of their efforts.
Those facts, along with countless more, make for an interesting narrative, but what I enjoyed most about the read was how Kiernan tells the story through the personal lives of nine women whom she personally interviewed. She delves into their background, their fears, and their sense of adventure. She gives them the long overdue credit for their dedication and their skills.
“The "hillbilly" girls were generating more enriched Tubealloy per run than the PhDs had...The District Engineer understood perfectly. Those girls...had been trained like soldiers. Do what you're told. Don't ask why.”
Much of the story is about the hardships they endured while making a new life in an "off the grid" kind of existence. The women dated men and literally NEVER spoke about their jobs. They dealt with overcrowding, rationing, and a routine of waiting in lines for everything. And yet, the book, and the attitude of these women was still collegial and optimistic.
For instance, Kiernan writes about dating lives in this unusual world:
“Case in point: On one of their first dates, he brought her a box of Ivory Flakes soap. Who needs flowers? Roses fade, but flaky soap available from the PX lasted months. Having Ivory Flakes was a rarity in itself, and also saved her valuable time—one less line to stand in, only to find that the grocer was out. Again. That was romance, as far as Colleen was concerned. Maybe this guy was a keeper after all.”
There is just enough information about the process of enriching uranium that you can't help but marvel at what the military accomplished. The context of the work makes the entire story seem somehow unreal. More than once I found myself thinking, "they did WHAT?!"
I was particularly intrigued by the paranoia around the secret and the way the government had residents spying on each other.
“They fought to smile through the lines and the mud and the long hours, dancing under the stars and under the watchful eyes of their government, an Orwellian backdrop for a Rockwellian world.”
As it turns out, the government was right to be paranoid, but in case you don't know your history (ahem!), I won't spoil the story.
Definitely put this book on your 2016 reading list.