Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

I grew up in Nashville, TN, about 3 hours away from Oak Ridge. When I grew up everyone already knew what Oak Ridge was and how it had helped to develop the Atomic Bomb and that, to this day, they had an absurdly high percentage of Ph.D.'s in their town. Even though it was a rather small city, it was disproportionately represented at any academic event, like Governor's School and Model UN and the statewide math tests at Vanderbilt. But I didn't really know much about it at all, so I was thrilled to pick up this book in preparation for attending Booktopia Asheville in the fall.

What I found particularly neat about the book was how Ms. Kiernan didn't just do a thorough and masterful job of researching the history, but she particularly looked for the role of women in the entire process, from the woman who co-developing the theory of splitting atoms to the woman who built the most effective Geiger counters to the many thousands of women who worked at Oak Ridge, doing everything from janitorial work to running the newspaper to separating the isotopes of uranium. She follows about 6-8 women from the time they first heard about jobs in Tennessee (or some didn't hear that and instead were hired and put on a train, without even knowing where they were going) to working their jobs to what happened after the bombs were dropped, when jobs and population in Oak Ridge understandably disappeared. These mostly young women did a terrific job (I especially liked the story about how they were running circles around the group of male Ph.D.s in California who had developed the method for enriching uranium. When that was pointed out, a head-to-head competition was arranged over a month. The women trounced the men.) All of them were there to support the troops as WWII, unlike any other war, affected pretty much every single family in the United States. Many had brothers or other loved ones overseas and they wanted to help end the war sooner and bring them home.

Ms. Kiernan really brings the era to life, talking about how novel it was for one woman to have a telephone in her house (she hid it under a box because so many people asked to use it when they saw it), taking us through the dating scene (many of these women ended up their time in Oak Ridge married), and showing us the propaganda of the day (I love the billboard advising carpooling to save gas that says "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler!"). You might think the book would be technical and dry, but since the women who were doing the enriching didn't even know what they were doing, let alone how, the details of the technical process are not dwelled upon. Instead it was about the day to day life, the secrecy, and the strong bonds these women formed, during their vital help for the war effort.

A fascinating and unique story of WWII, I loved reading it. I wish there were a few more pictures (although pictures weren't allowed then so it's understandable why there aren't many), but it was a great book and any WWII buff should certainly know about this new angle of the war.

I bought this book at Flyleaf Books, an independent bookstore in Chapel Hill, NC.

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