In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II Denise Kiernan explores the lives of the residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge was the location of the Clinton Engineer Works, whose purpose (unbeknownst to most of the workers) was enriching uranium for the atomic bombs. Many of these workers were young women, including many recent high school graduates, and interviews with the surviving workers form the core of Kiernan’s work.
The Girls of Atomic City works best as a recollection of daily life in Oak Ridge. We get numerous anecdotes about the challenges workers faced, including difficulties with housing, rations, working conditions, and, as the book repeatedly stresses, the necessity of keeping everything going on in Oak Ridge a secret. We follow the lives of a rather large cast of women through their time at Oak Ridge, many of whom would meet their husbands while working on the project. The book also excels at providing insight into the largely unknown women scientists who helped develop the science behind the bomb and explaining that science in an accessible way.
Still, there’s too much left unsaid in The Girls of Atomic City and Kiernan seems intent on avoiding many important issues. How black workers felt about segregation, how women felt about sexism in the workplace, health problems arising from handling nuclear material, and whether the workers had any moral dilemmas about the need for secrecy or guilt over the destruction the project produced are only touched on briefly, if at all. And there’s too much feel-good patriotism in the book; Kiernan has produced a linear story of American ingenuity in which we collected the scientists, we built the bomb, we won the war, and the workers lived happily ever after. The legacy of atomic weapons and government secrecy is, of course, much more ambiguous than that.
Despite these flaws The Girls of Atomic City is an interesting read on an important subject. Its emphasis on the everyday women whose work was instrumental in winning WWII is fascinating, even if I wish it was more analytical and less anecdotal.