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Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernen (4/5)

23 Mar

It’s been a long time since I read a quality non-fiction that I enjoyed. We’ve had a few book club flops and I haven’t picked up much on my own. So I am excited to say that I really enjoyed our last selection, The Girls of Atomic City. The title seemed familiar like I’d read a blogger review of it before. Leave me a note if that was you and we can gush about this book in the comments.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

The slow speed at which I read this book should be in no way a reflection on its quality. The last time I read a non-fiction book with this much interest was Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts. Kiernan’s story was well paced and I liked that she changed between the women while telling her story. It was a little hard to keep straight who was who because a lot of the stories had similar elements, but I enjoyed getting the wide range of stories from the variety of women.

I think Kiernan portrayed these women well. Each had her own story and it was obvious that Kiernan took the time to conduct thorough interviews with each of them. I liked that the women had a wide range of backgrounds as far as where they were from, education, family, and jobs. It helped tell a complete story of life in Oak Ridge.

Jane was my favorite. I related to her as an educated woman and I liked that she challenged what a woman could do at that time. She wanted to blaze her own path and when society stepped in and said ‘no,’ it only made her step in another direction but she didn’t stop walking. I wish she’d been able to become an engineer, but I think she did well by herself in her career and it seemed like she found satisfaction in her job.

The women in Oak Ridge were no different from women at any other time and place in America. Their concerns were over men and work and family and their futures. These are the same things my grandma was worried about at the same time in Michigan or my relatives in Ohio were thinking about. These stories are extraordinary because of what these women were doing unknowingly, but they are average in how they live. They are every woman even though they are special.

Denise Kiernan Image via The Daily Show

Denise Kiernan
Image via The Daily Show

I loved how the people of Oak Ridge found out what they had been working on. Many had figured out parts of it, but no one had a full picture of what was going on. Even after it was announced that they worked on the bomb, there were still questions. How did each piece fit into the puzzle? How did one woman turning a knob, another checking pipes, and another crunching numbers have to do with a nuclear bomb? I thought this confusion was really well written. There is often confusion and missed knowledge after a large global event and I thought Kiernan captured this well in her book.

The middle seemed to drag a bit to me. The description of the social clubs was nice, but sometimes too much. The housing situations were overdone a bit. The hardships of living in Oak Ridge were apparent at the beginning of the novel and I didn’t think to push them so much toward the end was needed.

Every day people can do extraordinary things. Wars are not fought by governments alone but by the men and women of the country who go without sidewalks and are moved out of their apartments at a moment’s notice and who might not even know what they’re doing. When we hear about the hardships of war that those in the 1940s lived through, it’s hard to imagine in the US today. Our troops are overseas and far away and the war effort doesn’t impact us on a daily basis. I loved Kiernan’s descriptions of how these people lived and the means they lived with to support their family and friends overseas.

Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t see myself ever writing historical non-fiction, but if I do, I hope it’s as beautifully written and Kiernan. There are some amazing non-fiction pieces out there and I would count Kiernan’s among them. It’s wonderful when a historical story reads like fiction and I thought Kiernan did that. She used a variety of people’s voices to weave the story so that it wasn’t a single person’s account (like Zeitoun or Anne Frank). A single voice isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t give a whole picture. I liked that Kiernan painted a mural instead of a portrait.

Very enjoyable story and one that gives a voice to people whose voices had been previously lost in the WWII conversation. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1940-1959 time period of my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II | Literary Hoarders