Tag Archives: World War II

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 Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

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.

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

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

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Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (4/5). We liked this book.

29 Sep

This book is another gem that came to me through my Book-A-Day Calendar in 2013. That thing really filled up my TBR list and this year, I’ve read 5 of them with an average rating of 3.8. That’s pretty good for a stack of papers! Especially when you consider the 10 personally recommended books I’ve read this year have an average 3.2 rating. I should trust this calendar more.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

We came over from Japan on boats to meet husbands in pictures. We work the fields of the wealthy white men in California, never having a moments rest. We bear the children who we hope will grow up to be just like us, but much better. And we are the ones that suffer when we’re taken away and put into camps.

Written in the collective first person, this story chronicles the Japanese brides who came to American after World War I in hopes of a better life. They work for years, raising children who reject them and their traditions and being seen as outcasts by the others living around them. And then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. What’s a Japanese to do? They purge themselves of their heirlooms and pictures of their families, but the accusations still fly. People start to disappear in the night. And then the word comes that they’re all going to be moved. In a mass exodus, the Japanese will leave the coastal cities and be relocated inland. The silence they leave behind is deafening.

I was not expecting much from this short little book. It’s length actually made me wonder at first if it was written for a young audience, but the quick dive into these women’s personal lives and thoughts corrected me. I knew about the Japanese camps during World War II, but I never gave much thought to what those people had endured before. I hadn’t read anything about Japanese immigrants to America before and it was eye-opening to see how they were treated.

One thing about history that’s always bothered me was why we put the Japanese in camps. I understand the logic that some immigrants were thought to help coordinate the attacks, etc., but I’m asking specifically why the Japanese and not the Germans or Italians or other nationality against which we were fighting. I’m German in heritage myself and I kept thinking of my grandma as a little girl being taken away to these camps, wondering what her distant relatives back in Germany could have done. I think the Japanese children felt this way, too. One theory I’ve heard is that the Japanese were just more easily identifiable. This makes me sad. Any comments?

It was almost impossible to draw individual characters from the text because of the first person plural POV. Otsuka presented the experience as collective and individual at the same time. It would say something like, “We endured and we flourished.” The reader knows some of the Japanese women endured and others flourished, but there was no tracking who did which. It was also hard to tell the size of the group the book tracked. Parts of it seemed like a small group, one ship’s worth of women, but at other times it seemed to represent all Japanese brides in that time period.

It was hard for me to relate to the characters. I felt that their story was very unique to the time in which it was told and would more relatable to an immigrant. I was born and raised in the US and I can’t relate to the struggles to learn the language and culture aside from my study abroad experiences, and I don’t think that holds a candle to what these women endured. I can see a struggle such as this one in some of the immigrants I interact with, but I can’t imagine the struggle.

I thought the end of the book was the most powerful. The point of view switched to the people who lived in California and how it felt when the Japanese were gone. There was a shared sense of emptiness and a realization that the Japanese had never harmed them and in truth had added a lot to their lives. No one seemed glad that the Japanese were gone and there was a slight sense of guilt in the voice.

Julie Otsuka Image from the author's website.

Julie Otsuka
Image from the author’s website.

The section of the book toward the beginning about manual labor when the women first arrived in the US was hard to read. The suffering that these women described reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath. It was hard to read about that suffering and I knew then that this book would take on a dark tone. The men were portrayed in a very negative light during this part of the book and it made the women seem very alone and vulnerable.

The point of view lends itself to a theme of community. The Japanese women shared many of the experiences in the story and kept a close community with those enduring with them. Their diaspora from California was also done as a community and their group was unwelcome as a nation. Their community stayed tight-knit throughout and I think that’s the best they could have asked for in the situation. Sometimes, having each other is enough.

Writer’s Takeaway: What a great example of being brave with writing choices. Not many novels are written in the collective first person and I’ve never read one so coherent as this. Otsuka did a wonderful job of bringing the story of a community together with one voice. She was also very smart to choose a time in history that’s not as well-known and make it relatable today. Plus, she did it in a short number of pages. Bravo all around to the writing in this book!

Really enjoyable overall and a quick, refreshing read. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

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