The Girls of Atomic City
The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” —Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City
At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not appear on any map. Thousands of civilians, many of them young women from small towns across the U.S., were recruited to this secret city, enticed by the promise of solid wages and war-ending work. What were they actually doing there? Very few knew. The purpose of this mysterious government project was kept a secret from the outside world and from the majority of the residents themselves. Some wondered why, despite the constant work and round-the-clock activity in this makeshift town, did no tangible product of any kind ever seem to leave its guarded gates? The women who kept this town running would find out at the end of the war, when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed and changed the world forever.
Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. “A phenomenal story,” and Publishers Weekly called it an “intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history.”
“Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city...Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.” —The Washington Post
Praise For The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II…
— Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
“Fascinating ... Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research. ... Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.”
— The Washington Post
“Kiernan…brings a unique and personal perspective to this key part of American history.…Instead of the words of top scientists and government officials, Kiernan recounts the experiences of factory workers, secretaries, and low-level chemists in a town that housed at its peak 75,000 people trained not to talk about what they knew or what they did. She combines their stories with detailed reporting that provides a clear and compelling picture of this fascinating time.”
— The Boston Globe
“Kiernan’s focus is on the intimate and often strange details of work and life at Oak Ridge. It’s told in a novelistic style and is an intimate look at the experiences of the young women who worked at Oak Ridge and the local residents whose lives were changed by the presence of the project.”
— The San Francisco Book Review
“Kiernan’s book, the result of seven years of research and interviews with the surviving 'girls,' sparkles with their bright, WWII slang and spirit, and takes readers behind the scenes into the hive-like encampments and cubicles where they spent their days and nights.…The Girls of Atomic City brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science.”
— Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“The image of Rosie the Riveter — women filling in at factories to help the war effort — is well known. But women also assisted on the Manhattan Project, signing up for secret work in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to help build the atomic bomb. Kiernan looks at the lives and contributions of these unsung women who worked in jobs from secretaries to chemists.”
— New York Post
“Kiernan’s accounts ring with authenticity.…The Girls of Atomic City is fascinating."
— Minneapolis Star Tribune
"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."
— Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II… An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.”
— Kirkus Reviews
"Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor."
“Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb.”
“This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience.”
— Publishers Weekly
"A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb -- from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden -- The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer's genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class."
“The Girls of Atomic City is the best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story about a remarkable group of women who performed clandestine and vital work during World War II. Denise Kiernan recreates this forgotten chapter in American history in a work as meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.”
— Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City
“Great, relevant, readable.”
— --The Washingtonian
"Kiernan has contributed a new and vital chapter to studies of American political development and women and politics."
— American Political Science Association
Atria Books, 9781451617535, 416pp.
Publication Date: March 11, 2014
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Denise Kiernan explains in an author’s note, “The information in this book is compartmentalized, as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project.” (page 18) How does the book manage to recreate the workers’ experience of months-long ignorance, and the shock of finding out what they were working on?
2. Consider the losses of lives, land, and community that resulted from the Manhattan Project. What were some of the sacrifices that families and individuals made in their efforts to end the war? How do these losses compare to the gains of salary, solidarity, and peace? Do you think the ends of the Project justify the means? Why or why not?
3. Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices—including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship—that families of that era made? Why or why not?
4. Consider the African-American experience at Oak Ridge. What kinds of discrimination did Kattie and her family face? How did Kattie manage to make the best of her substandard living conditions? What role do you think race played in the medical experimentation on Ebb Cade?
5. Helen was recruited to spy on her neighbors at home and at work. Discuss the ethical implications of this request. Was it fair, necessary, or wise to ask ordinary workers to spy? Why do you think Helen never mailed any of the top-secret envelopes she was given?
6. Although the Clinton Engineer Works was, in many ways, a tightly controlled social experiment, the military didn’t account for women’s impact on the community: “a sense of permanence. Social connectivity. Home.” (page 135) Consider the various ways that the women of Oak Ridge tried to make themselves at home. Which of their efforts succeeded, and which failed? Why were some women so successful at making Oak Ridge home while others were not, were depressed, looked forward to leaving?
7. Consider the legacy of President Truman, who made the decision to use atomic weaponry for the first time. How do Americans seem to regard Truman’s decision today? How does Truman’s legacy compare to other wartime presidents, such as George W. Bush or Lyndon B. Johnson?
8. “The most ambitious war project in military history rested squarely on the shoulders of tens of thousands of ordinary people, many of them young women.” (page 159) Compare how The Girls of Atomic City contrasts “ordinary people” to the extraordinary leaders behind the atomic bomb: the General, the Scientist, and the Engineer. Are the decision-makers portrayed as fully as the workers? Do the workers get as much credit as the leaders?
9. Kiernan sets The Girls of Atomic City entirely in the past, recreating the workers’ experiences from her interviews with the surviving women. How would this book have differed if the interviews from the present day were included? Does Kiernan succeed in immersing us in the era of World War II? Explain your answer.
10. Among the workers at Oak Ridge, whose story did you find most fascinating? Which of these women do you think Kiernan brought to life most vividly, and how?
11. Discuss the scenes in the book that take place far from Oak Ridge, Tennessee: scientific discoveries in Europe, secret tests in New Mexico, political meetings in Washington, and post-atomic devastation in Japan. How does this broad view of the bomb’s creation and aftermath enrich the story of wartime life in Oak Ridge?
12. Discuss how various contributors to the Manhattan Project felt about the use of the atomic bomb, including General Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and Harry S. Truman. What regrets did they express about the bomb’s results, if any? Do you think a weapon of that magnitude could or should be used in present-day warfare? Why or why not?
13. Kiernan writes, “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.” (page 412) What lasting contributions to society have come out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee? Why is it difficult to celebrate or commemorate the work that has been done in that secret city?