screenshot116 History classes leave out all the good stuff. Sure, they get the essential facts (generally) correct, but rarely do we get the backstory, the snippets of every day life for the people involved, or the detail to really make us think about the impact of these events. Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II helps fill in some of the details we missed in school.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee was created by the US government during World War II for the express purpose of housing the men and women who would be working on the atomic bomb. Of course, most people in Oak Ridge had no idea what they were manufacturing. You did your job, only your job, and you talked about it with no one.  You didn’t need to know the step before; what happened after your part didn’t matter.  The only important thing was that you were helping to end the War.

Kiernan profiles several women from all different backgrounds who came to Oak Ridge looking for a good job and a way to contribute to the war effort.  Jobs like this, coming out of the Depression and for women, were few and far between and this was a rare opportunity for most of these ladies.  A handful were highly educated and for once their knowledge and skills were sought after. Yet life at Oak Ridge certainly wasn’t posh and easy, and cultural issues like racial discrimination existed on base as they did in the real world.  The Girls of the Atomic City offers a glimpse into a piece of history we’ve not seen the likes of in my lifetime.

I enjoyed the book overall- I learned a lot about the beginnings of uranium enrichment, the scientists who feared its potential, and delved a bit into the secrecy and deliberate misinformation to the American public about what was going on at these various sites (this makes sense given the heightened concern that Hitler might also be working to develop nuclear technology and no one knew who might be spies).  I was a little bit disappointed, though, only because I thought we were going to get even more details about the women who contributed to this effort and what their daily lives were like- we did get that, it’s just that the book also focused on other things I was not expecting. For instance, I did not know that Oak Ridge had been created specifically for this purpose. Nor did I know that in some instances the government forced families to sell their homes and land at unfairly low prices.  But we had a war to win.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book to me was the reaction from people who had contributed to building this bomb once they found out what the bomb was and how it was used in Japan. That certainly brought some humanity to the story that I found quite interesting.

This is not a non-fiction book that reads like a novel- I read it mostly in the evenings before bed- but I liked getting this glimpse into the past and learning more about Wold War II and the people who lived it.