The Girls of Atomic City is good on several levels. Denise Kiernan writes the history of the women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee who worked to enrich the uranium used for the first atomic bombs in a town that officially did not exist and without ever being told what they were doing; often, they did not even know what the person next to them was working on.
Kiernan has a knack for choosing the moments that make her topic come alive. There are details about daily life during World War II, such as the fact that metal lipstick containers were no longer available because their manufacturers were now making military items; rather than dig her lipstick out of the flimsy containers it came in “Colleen had held on to one or two of her old metal lipstick cases long after the lipstick had disappeared from them. Wielding a paperclip, she would fastidiously dig out the remaining bits of pigmented oils and wax from any remaining tubes—or from a newly purchased cardboard tube—and carefully melt it down on a stovetop before pouring the emulsified liquid back into the precious metal case.” Then there were the difficulties of life in a top secret city, such as the time Dot had her date’s supervisor approach and tell her that she didn’t want her to see the man again, or the way the company chosen to build the town housing was not told where they were building or how many units ahead of time for fear that the information might get out and provide clues to spies.
She also documents the darker side of Oak Ridge life, both the isolation and the segregation.There were plans to build a Negro Village that was separate, but equal, to the white living areas. In the end, the area was renamed and became the all-white East Village; Colonel Crenshaw rationalized that “the negroes felt more comfortable in huts, that was what was familiar to them.” Kattie Strickland, whom Kiernan interviewed extensively, makes it abundantly obvious that this was (of course) not the case. Her account of figuring out how to cook in her hutment is both an incredible celebration of ingenuity and heartbreaking because she had to.
Kiernan’s research is impressive. She draws from numerous interviews with the residents of the town and, in some cases, their children. Her list of references in back also include a number of published articles from the time, studies done afterward, and as-yet unpublished work, making this one of the truly original non-fiction works. Readers will not find this information elsewhere. There was also a photographer, James Edward Wescott, on site to document events, and Kiernan has included several of his images making the city seem that much more real. There are photographs of the lines the women had to wait in, the kinds of housing they lived in, dances, and the ever-present billboards admonishing silence and secrecy. There is an extensive list of works consulted for each chapter, and the book has an index for those wanting to look up specific topics or areas.
Between the prose and the information, The Girls of Atomic City is one of the books that I found myself reading out loud from frequently and was urged to finish quickly as there were other readers waiting. I highly recommend it to those interested in history, general non-fiction, or clear and informative writing.
More information available on the book’s home page: http://www.girlsofatomiccity.com/
Published March 5th 2013
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Full Title: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
ISBN 1451617526 (ISBN13: 9781451617528)