THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. By Denise Kiernan. Touchstone. 400 pages. $27.
Denise Kiernan tells the story of the women of Oak Ridge, Tenn., who worked on the Manhattan Project, a secret program comprising about 40 laboratories and factories that employed 200,000 people.
The mission of the program was to manufacture the atomic bomb. Their roles were crucial to the success of the project, and this book highlights their accomplishments and their lives.
It began in great secrecy. Oak Ridge wasn’t even a town at first. It was created in 1942 as one of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities. At the height of World War II, it was using more electricity than New York City. More than 75,000 people moved there. Some of them were young women recruited from small towns across the South.
Kiernan, who provides a cast of characters listed at the front of the book, affords the reader the opportunity to glean the background of each individual. Previous occupations ranged from secretary to chemist.
The women are unsure of the exact nature of the secret construction, but all know that something big is about to happen. Kiernan’s imagery and use of dialogue draws the reader into the story as if it were happening right now. Pictures help humanize the book’s characters.
Kiernan takes care not to separate the women’s story from the larger context of war. She refers to conversations among high-ranking military officials, President Harry S. Truman and others.
The tension leading up to America’s involvement in the war is palpable. Even secrets shared by couples cause strife within relationships.
This is no easy life; tension and anxiety jump from the page.
The accomplishments of these women, however, are only partial. They were given high-paying jobs while the men were away, but then too often denied access to engineering and other higher education programs. Society, Kiernan reminds us, had not yet fully embraced women’s equality.
“The Girls of Atomic City,” which often reads like a novel, shares an underappreciated dimension of the World War II era. More discussion would be welcomed concerning the contributions women have made to the security of this country.
Reviewer Doretha Walker is an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston and assistant professor at South University.