Book Club Reflection: The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernen

13 Apr

My book club always seems to meet around my birthday. It feels like an extra present from the universe when it happens. We met the day before my birthday this year to talk about The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan. I think we had a really good discussion.

We used the LitLovers questions to guide our discussion.I love when a non-fiction book reads like fiction and I think we found that in this novel. One member thought she needed an editor to cut out some of the passages that seemed repetitive (mud

I love when a non-fiction book reads like fiction and I think we found that in this novel. One member thought she needed an editor to cut out some of the passages that seemed repetitive (mud mud mud).

This was a topic none of us knew much about before reading it. We knew about the testing in New Mexico but had no idea that there were people in Tennessee refining the uranium. I guess we see what the history books want us to remember!

The first question from LitLovers asked us, “Denise Kiernan explains in an author’s note, “The information in this book is compartmentalized, as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project.” (page 18) How does the book manage to recreate the workers’ experience of months-long ignorance, and the shock of finding out what they were working on?” Kiernan formatted the book into ‘story’ and ‘science’ sections. She used separate chapters to tell us about what was happening in Europe or with the US government but didn’t mix these things with the sections that told the stories of the women. It was interesting to read about those in Europe and what they were doing to advance science, but the women of Oak Ridge wouldn’t have known that so these stories didn’t overlap. One could read only the story sections and learn about life in Oak Ridge or just the science sections and hear only of war strategies and upper military planning. They were well separated.

Many of us felt for those who had been kicked out of their homes for the factories. There are many stories in our own Detroit of this happening, specifically when residents of the Poletown district were relocated to build a General Motors assembly plant. A member of our group had eminent domain evoked on her property; all of the wooded area behind her home was reclaimed by the city for a draining project. She was compensated only $1!

We saw that a lot of the girls seemed to suffer from a mild depression brought on by all the secrets they were forced to keep. We wondered how common in US history and society a situation like this is where so many people are forced to live in secrecy. There’s each nation’s version of the Secret Service and every job has its own minor secrets, but these seem minor in comparison. When I worked in retail, our big secrets were where the Black Friday TVs were going to be placed in the store, not an atomic bomb!

Question six from Lit Lovers asked, “Why were some women so successful at making Oak Ridge home while others were not, were depressed, looked forward to leaving?” This reminded a lot of us of a person’s Freshman year of college. When people go away to school, most either love or hate the experience. Living alone in a dorm, having the freedom to come and go as you please, is very intriguing to some people. Others, however, need the structure they had when they lived at home. They want to go back to somewhere that’s safe. I remember girls from school who went home for Fall Break in October and never came back. They were happier at home.One of the

One of the quotes I found most intriguing was on page 305.

But one woman in particular strode up to Dot, glaring and asked, “Aren’t you ashamed you helped build a bomb that killed all those people?”
The truth was, Dot did have conflicting feelings. There was sadness at the loss of live, yes, but that wasn’t the only thing she felt. They had all been so happy, so thrilled, when the war ended. Didn’t any of these people remember that? And yes, Oak Ridgers felt horrible when they saw the pictures of the aftermath in Japan. Relief. Fear. Joy. Sadness. Decades later, how could she explain this to someone who had no experience with the Project, someone who hadn’t lived through that war, let alone lived in Oak Ridge?
Dot knew the woman wanted a simple answer, so she gave her one.
“Well,” she said, “they killed my brother.”

I asked the women of our group what they would say if they were Dot and asked this question. Most believed they would have conflicting feelings like Dot did. How many lives were saved by bombing the cities? A member said that his father was supposed to be one of the first to invade Japan if the invasion had ended up like the Invasion of Normandy. There are numbers that tell us how many lives would have been lost if that happened. This article predicts American casualties alone t 267,000 – 800,000 with Japanese deaths higher. When you look at the death toll from the atomic bombs at just under 100,000, the math seems to support it. But that doesn’t mean it feels right.

We wondered if the secret of the project could be kept today with modern technology and communication. Modern culture tends to over-share and over-communicate the details of our lives in a manner and efficiency that was unimaginable in the 1940s. We’re not saying that there are no secret government projects, only that 70,000 civilians would not be brought in to work on them. I don’t know if it could be done in 2015. As far as a secret facility, I would think it would show up on Google Earth, but Iraq was able to build an underground facility that went unnoticed for a long time.One of the women in our group was graduating high school during the war and was married in 1945. She remembers being in downtown Detroit when the news of victory came through and that she packed a picnic and went to Belle Isle to celebrate. While the war was going on, she was a nurse’s aid who would relieve the nurses while they were on breaks and lunch and had

One of the women in our group was graduating high school during the war and was married in 1945. She remembers being in downtown Detroit when the news of victory came through and that she packed a picnic and went to Belle Isle to celebrate. While the war was going on, she was a nurse’s aid who would relieve the nurses while they were on breaks and lunch and had several pen pals in the forces that she would write to. She recalls that none of them were in particularly combative areas. She says she hadn’t paid too much attention to world politics and news before the bombs dropped, but that that event was what helped her to realize how important it was to watch the news and be aware. The news was not easily accessible like it is today and it was an effort to pay attention to current events.The third Lit Lovers question was, “Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices—including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship—that families of that era made? Why or why not?” Many felt that people today are more skeptical than those of the WWII era. We are more likely to question our government. After 9/11, there was a resurgence of patriotism and after that tragedy, the country might have been willing to commit like it did during WWII. However, the war that followed was funded largely by China and the US citizens didn’t have to sacrifice the way that they did in 1945. The Second World War was a very classless war; everyone fought. Vietnam and Korea were not the same way and the veterans of those wars were not treated with the same dignity. Veterans now are treated better.

The third Lit Lovers question was, “Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices—including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship—that families of that era made? Why or why not?” Many felt that people today are more skeptical than those of the WWII era. We are more likely to question our government. After 9/11, there was a resurgence of patriotism and after that tragedy, the country might have been willing to commit like it did during WWII. However, the war that followed was funded largely by China and the US citizens didn’t have to sacrifice the way that they did in 1945. The Second World War was a very classless war; everyone fought. Vietnam and Korea were not the same way and the veterans of those wars were not treated with the same dignity. Veterans now are treated better.Many of the characters in this story started to blend together for many of us. They had similar stories and met similar men. They were like the cogs in a wheel that ran a machine in a factory. In the beginning, we all said we struggled to keep them separate and know each one’s story, but we realized that it didn’t matter too much and the overall experience was important, not so much the individual stories.

Many of the characters in this story started to blend together for many of us. They had similar stories and met similar men. They were like the cogs in a wheel that ran a machine in a factory. In the beginning, we all said we struggled to keep them separate and know each one’s story, but we realized that it didn’t matter too much and the overall experience was important, not so much the individual stories.

The prevalence of spying in the novel was surprising to many of us. Being asked to spy on your own neighbor was a horrifying thought. We hated that the people would rat each other out for small things that, in the long run, weren’t doing any damage. Though, the need for high security was justified in that time and with that work. We thought that it would be hard to have a relationship of any kind with your coworkers because you couldn’t talk about the thing you had in common; work.

The segregation in the novel was surprising to some of us, but we recognized it as part of everyday life a Southern state during WWII. Kattie’s experience was one of the few that stuck out to me because of how different it was. The story of Ebb Cade was also horrifying. We wondered if he would have been subjected to similar treatment if he was a white man.

We took this question a step further and wondered if the bombs would have been used against Germany. We know that the Japanese were interned during WWII partly because they were easy to locate because of appearance differences. Is it easier to think of those who look different as separate? Is it easier to bomb them as well? Because the German’s fit the American majority of ‘white European,’ would we have bombed them? It’s an interesting question that we were unable to answer.

One of the big players in the book with very little face time is Truman. Those who remember WWII remember him as the man who ended the war, not the man who dropped the bomb. Now that the effects of nuclear bombs are known, he has a less favorable reputation. At the time, the war ending meant an improved quality of life for many people. There were fewer restrictions on products and communication. Though important then, we don’t tend to think of these effects now.

We wondered about Oak Ridge after the war. This was a farming area before and suddenly there were high-tech facilities and an abundance of people. Though many of them moved away, some stayed. What did they do with the buildings? Who wanted to live in the former dorm rooms when they had a chance to go somewhere else?I know this is a longer post so thank you if you made it this far! We had a great discussion. Our next book is Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo.

I know this is a longer post so thank you if you made it this far! We had a great discussion. Our next book is Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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