Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

Time for my last book review of the month, and this one took me a while to get through.  It was a fantastic book, though, and so I'm excited to talk about it today!

Title: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women Who Helped Win World War II

Author: Denise Kiernan

Publisher/Price: Touchstone/$10.12 here

Type: Nonfiction

Genre: History

Number of pages: 416

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Overview: The Girls of Atomic City is a narrative-like story of the lives of several women and women as a whole in Oak Ridge, the secret boom-town in Tennessee where thousands of people were put to work by the government on a top-secret Project during World War II and promised that their work would help bring a speedy end to the war.  For many mothers and sisters of boys fighting overseas, the job was a dream come true.  There was a catch, though.  No one living in Oak Ridge, and working on the Project had any idea what exactly it was that they were working on.  The work was compartmentalized and information about anything had to be scraped together in a little heap of "maybes" and "what ifs."  If anyone started getting too curious, they disappeared.  The residents of and workers at Oak Ridge tried to ignore the strangeness of the secrecy and put their heads down.  If they were given a chance at bring their loved ones home soon, nothing was going to deter them.  As they learned at the end of the war, the Project was actually the first atomic bomb.  The Girls of Atomic City is a story of a forgotten chapter, even an unknown one, a story of wartime necessity and American perseverance.

My thoughts:  I picked this book up at Barnes & Noble shortly after I finished Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, and I was hoping it would be very similar – a story-like retelling of the lives of extraordinary people.  In many ways, it was.  Kiernan was able to weave the individual stories of several women who worked at Oak Ridge (and whom she was able to talk to in person) with the greater story of what was going on in the secret town.

Unlike LTSS, though, I didn't whiz through this book.  I didn't read it a day like I did LTSS, and it took me a while to get through.  That's okay, though.  It's nonfiction, and it's rare that I cannot put a nonfiction book down, so I'm counting LTSS as an exception.

Despite the fact that I didn't fall in love with The Girls of Atomic City, I learned so much.  Like, I had no idea – not a clue – that there was an entire town dedicated to working on developing the atomic bomb.  That was never in any history textbook I read, ever.  And believe me, I had a very thorough history class.  I had always assumed the atomic bomb was developed way out in New Mexico, in the middle of no where by a small group of genius scientists with lots of time and money on their hands who figured out how to make sand jump in the desert.  I can easily say that I definitely learned something from this book.  It kind of blew me away, really.  I had no idea that the government gave people jobs and ordered them not to speak of what they were doing, or not to ask questions, or asked them to make huge sacrifices to work on something about which they had no idea.  Frankly, some parts of Oak Ridge and its rules seemed straight out of a book by George Orwell.  But I also understand that World War II, or any war, for that matter, could not have been won without the government temporarily changing and making exceptions.  I get that.

But, let's get back to the book.  As I said, I learned a ton from it, and I've said before that I read nonfiction to learn something.  If it moves me emotionally, that's just a bonus.  So, yes, I really enjoyed this book.  There were several times I'm pretty sure I gasped or read a part to my parents, like: "Dad, did you know...", or "Oh. my. word.  Listen to this...".  One of my favorite things Kiernan did with this book, was after every chapter of talking about Oak Ridge, she would write a short chapter about Tubealloy, which was some form of plutonium, which was used in making the atomic bomb.  These chapters were absolutely fascinating and they helped me realize how crazy powerful the atomic bomb was, how powerful even the chemicals/stuff that made it up were.  For example, when the bomb was first tested in New Mexico, "the Test Gadget annihilated the steel tower and carved a crater six feet deep and 1, 200 feet in diameter.  The temperature at the center of the mass of fire was four times the temperature at the center of the sun (Kiernan 237)."  That's crazy!

Finally, I gotta talk about the writing in this book.  Denise Kiernan is an ah-mazing writer.  She has such a way with words and is able to create beauty with them.  Even when talking about technical stuff and chemicals and experiments, the way she uses words gives what she writes about so much more force and conviction.  She is such a talented writer.  I shared one instance of this in last week's grammar post, but I wanted to share a few more, because they are so good.

In a chapter when she was explaining the secrecy and "mum's the word" attitude in Oak Ridge:

"But many Oak Ridgers didn't see it that way.  These disparate residents had come together to work, to love, to get married, and plant Victory Gardens behind makeshift trailers and cemesto prefab homes  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. (166-167)"   

Describing how one of the women ingeniously repurposed scrap metal into a biscuit pan:

"From the warped, discarded metal of a top secret war plant to her hands came a simple pan and some fresh biscuits. (171)"

There are so many more places throughout the book where the power of the writing stopped me.  It was an awesome book for the writing alone.

If you are history nut like me and love learning about the lesser-known parts of it, check out The Girls of Atomic City.  It's an amazing story about a time when Americans felt compelled to "do their bit" because there were lots of other people doing their bit in a much harder way and the least those at home could do was anything.  It's a beautiful story about sacrifice and love and a different way of life in a different time.

That wraps up this month's last review!  Thanks for reading, and I'll be back tomorrow to share some stuff recently liked (and loved).  xo, Ella

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