I read The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan several months ago. I liked it, but it felt a little bit like it was trying to copy Hidden Figures with slightly less impressive results.
The Manhattan Project, the development of nuclear weapons, wasn’t a simple thing. It required many moving parts, one of which was the enrichment of uranium. That’s what the employees of Oak Ridge, Tennessee did. Though most didn’t know it. Everything about the project was shrouded in secrecy (for obvious reasons), meaning that nobody was allowed into the city who didn’t belong there. Families didn’t know where there mothers, sisters, wives (fathers, brothers, husbands) were working. Letters home were so heavily redacted that they made little sense. Nothing remotely relating to location, people, or science was allowed through the mail. They couldn’t even talk to each other about what they did.
The girls in Atomic City (Oak Ridge) came from all over the United States. The pay was good, drawing them in. Some were high school graduates, some were older with families back at home. All did something that was supposed to help the war effort, but otherwise was a huge blank. In fact, the people in Atomic City made a joke of guessing what it was (as long as they didn’t guess too loudly or too accurately). But they worked hard, knowing that their success was crucial to the safety of the country.
I must confess that I didn’t feel as close to these characters as I did the ones in Hidden Figures. Maybe it’s because I listened to instead of read the book.
Like I said above, I didn’t feel particularly close to the characters, but I assume it’s partly because I listened to the book. I think it’s also partly due to the women not being fully developed throughout the course of the book. By this I mean that although some of the women appeared throughout the entire timeline, they weren’t delved into enough individually to make them personable. And partly, I think it’s due to there being too many women vying for the limelight. A few you can live and develop along with. Too many, and you start to feel harried. There were a few, though, that caught my empathy. I especially liked that there was some romance.
Part of the problem with the characters, I think, has to do with the storyline. I didn’t feel much urgency. I knew intellectually that these characters were working to help build atom bombs, but the war felt too far away. The best part was when the women worked overtime, donating their overtime wages to a fighter plane fund. On the other hand, it makes sense that this little town in nowhere Tennessee that did officially exist created a strange little bubble where the people were on the front lines of war while being far removed from it. On the whole, the storyline did have a fairly logical progression starting from the inception of the city to the surrender of Japan. Plus, there were some fascinating details about life in such a unique set of circumstances.
What the story lacks in character development, it more than makes up for it in writing. There were some simply lovely turns of phrase:
“They fought to smile through the lines and the mud and the long hours, dancing under the stars and under the watchful eyes of their government, an Orwellian backdrop for a Rockwellian world.”
There was humor as well:
“Case in point: On one of their first dates, he brought her a box of Ivory Flakes soap. Who needs flowers? Roses fade, but flaky soap available from the PX lasted months. Having Ivory Flakes was a rarity in itself, and also saved her valuable time—one less line to stand in, only to find that the grocer was out. Again. That was romance, as far as Colleen was concerned. Maybe this guy was a keeper after all.”
I’m willing to base my less than enthusiastic review on the fact that it’s been a while since I read this book, and I listened to it instead of read it. I think there are some things you miss when you don’t read the words (though I do like audiobooks). This book captures a slice of history that embodies the evolution of America from a simple life with stay-at-home women to a technology-driven society with strong females. It’s an evolution worth witnessing.
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