Sunday, February 14, 2016

Review: The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

Nowadays when we think of places associated with the development of the atomic bomb, we of course think of Los Alamos, NM and Oak Ridge, TN. But we wouldn't always have named them. In fact, we wouldn't have known the bomb was in development, never mind the secret places where it was coming into being. Secrecy was key. Even now when we know about the Manhattan Project and its eventual outcome, thanks to as yet unexamined papers and documents about it, we may still not know the whole story, something Denise Kiernan, in her narrative non-fiction account, The Girls of Atomic City, tries to remedy in some small part.

While young men all over the country were being sent overseas to fight, young women were also looking to contribute to the war effort. Some of the young women looking to help end the war ended up at a place that wasn't on any map: Oak Ridge, Tennessee. These young women were from all over, but especially the South. They came for a variety of reasons: economic, personal, job related. Most of them had very little idea what they were doing at Oak Ridge. All of them knew enough not to question their work or the work of others around them.  And even when the war was over, they've mostly kept to this imposed silence until fewer and fewer of these women are left to tell their story.  Interspersed with the stories of a small selection of women who worked at Oak Ridge during WWII is a more general timeline of the Manhattan Project as a whole, technical details about the creation of the atomic bomb, and the scientific history that brought us to the possibility of splitting an atom and creating a weapon out of that reaction.

Kiernan interviewed some of the remaining women from Oak Ridge, getting them to open up after decades of silence about their work and their life in the hastily constructed town deep in the mountains of Tennessee. Many of the women came from similar backgrounds, poor and no more educated than high school and it was often very hard to keep these strangely incurious young women and their pasts straight.  While the book purports to show what daily life was like in this restricted, top secret place, the only time that this is accomplished in more than very general terms is when Kiernan discusses Kattie, the sole African-American woman in the book. The rest of the women were not as well differentiated as might have been hoped and often blended together.

There is important information here, information that should be not only available but should be common knowledge for its importance in our history, but the way that it is presented is occasionally confusing and repetitive making it a much more difficult read than it should have been. The narrative structure, with the intervening parts about the the greater project, was choppy. The women were presented fairly vaguely which meant the reader fails to connect emotionally with any of them. And each of the women's stories end with their marriages or children without examining the lifelong impact the work had on them either in terms of their health or of their mental well being, a strange omission indeed. I wanted to thrill to this story of the unearthed secrets of the time and place, knowing what a huge piece of our not so distant history this represented but I ended up disappointed and feeling like I too was trapped in the endless mud that blanketed so much of wartime Oak Ridge. The book did make me want to learn more so in the end though, so maybe it did what it was supposed to do after all.

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