Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City, is an experienced producer, journalist, and writer who also has a science-education background, all of which helped her create this important work of historical biography — and just in time. As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us — their children, grandchildren, and greats — to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation’s women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else’s. Ever. Anywhere.
Between 1943 and 1945, these women left home or existing jobs to take unknown jobs in the newly constructed, secretive, and increasingly crowded town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “[The women were] told that their new jobs served one purpose only: to bring a speedy and victorious end to the war. That was enough for [them].” They worked hard for some two years before learning what they were really working on. When the U. S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, they finally knew what their contribution was to the war effort.
The book takes an approach reminiscent of that taken by the military overseers of the town of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project. That approach is to compartmentalize information. Unlike what the Oak Ridge workers experienced, however, the book’s readers are privy to a far wider range of compartmentalized information all along the way, giving us a 360-degree vision of the overall project, not just limited to Oak Ridge and not just limited to the women.
The book first provides brief-bio lists of the people, places, and things that will be key to the narrative; then a map of the town of Oak Ridge — showing the locations of the four uranium-enriching plants and the seven guarded gates, the only ways on and off “the Reservation,” as the town was often called; and then chronologically detailing in alternating chapters the experience of regular people — as part of the rapidly growing, government-run city of Oak Ridge — and the inexorable advance of scientific knowledge bent toward winning World War II.
Kiernan’s science chapters are remarkable for two reasons. (1) They highlight the roles of usually unsung women (Ida Noddack, Lise Meitner, Leona Woods, Joan Hinton, Elizabeth Graves) in the prediction, measurement, and containment of nuclear fission as a concept and a reality. (2) They are sublimely clearly written for lay readers; the author presumes that her readers have little to no background in science. The fact that she successfully describes nuclear fission without ever using a diagram is testimony to the clarity of her writing.
Kiernan’s people chapters are remarkable as well, weaving in the true experiences of Oak Ridge workers (represented by those still living to share memories directly) with all aspects of the city’s rapid development. The city was originally planned to have 13,000 residents, but that plan was scrapped and increasingly higher numbers were planned. By the fall of 1943 the plan was for 42,000 residents. In 1945 the number peaked at 75,000 residents.
The book emphasizes the mud everywhere, since sidewalks couldn’t be created fast enough, and the speed with which housing went up. “At the height of construction, new [prefab] homes were erected as quickly as one per every thirty minutes.” The total land taken over by the government eventually came to over 90 square miles, much of it used by the four uranium-enriching plants and the rest of it used by the townspeople who serviced the plants (while ignorant about the nature of their work) or the hospitals and cafeterias and so on servicing the people. The average age at Oak Ridge was 27.
Reading, I felt breathless more than a few times; it is mindboggling how much was accomplished how fast, especially in light of the unpredictability of any human endeavor but this one multiplied by so many assignments, people, and numbers needed to get to the lesser and finally the greater goals. Even as all the Project work was getting done, people’s lives were being lived. “Women infused the job site with life, their presence effortlessly defying all attempts to control and plan and shape every aspect of day-to-day existence at Oak Ridge. The Project may not have known what was to become of the town after the war, but the women knew that while they were there, they would not only work as hard as the men, but they would make it home.”
This review can’t begin to do justice to the story contained in The Girls of Atomic City. I’m grateful to Denise Kiernan for her research, her journalism and people skills, her stick-to-itiveness — all that she brought to this work of narrative nonfiction to give readers a larger picture than, I believe, has been available to the general audience before. Certainly the timeline, the science, the major military and political players, and so on are well known. But it has taken an astute woman writer to tell the story in a whole new way.
Kiernan writes in her Epilogue, “When these people and what’s left of the original town and plants are finally gone, who and what will be left to interpret the origins of one of the most significant moments in world history — the birth of the nuclear age? [The] challenge in telling the story of the atomic bomb is one of nuance, requiring thought and sensitivity and walking a line between commemoration and celebration.” Giving the book a title that will encourage women to pick it up and read it means that more people will truly comprehend the historic story of the nuclear age and carry the attendant responsibility forward.
The author ends a publicity interview with this statement, and I’d like to end my review with it as well: “Many people know very little about the development of the atomic bomb, despite the fact that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy play a significant role in our lives and our world … Whether or not you agree with the outcome, the tremendous amount that the Manhattan Project accomplished in such a short amount of time — just under three years [from initial groundbreaking] — is astonishing. The phrase “Manhattan Project” remains synonymous with an all-out effort. We need a Manhattan Project for … obesity, the fight on cancer, climate change … I hear and read that all the time. It makes you wonder what other kinds of things could be accomplished with that kind of determination, effort, and, not to mention, financial and political support. What if the kind of money, manpower, and resources that went into the Manhattan Project went to the fight against hunger? Alzheimer’s? Homelessness?”Powered by Sidelines