Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

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Thanks to the power of Pinterest and Denise Kiernan’s lovely spouse, two copies of The Girls of Atomic City came to us right away after exclaiming our interest in wanting to read this one! (one has been sent out to San D. for Elizabeth to enjoy….it’s on its way Liz!)

I saw the cover of this fascinating story pinned on Pinterest and read a brief description and was immediately drawn to it. How fascinating would this story be or what, right? Joseph D’Agnese, Ms. Kiernan’s lovely spouse worked really hard to ensure we got a copy of this in our hot little hands and quite quickly at that too. Thank you, thank you so much for that Joseph!

“other women on other trains kept pulling in to the very same station, their routes like veins running down the industrial arm of the East Coast, extending from the heart of the Midwest, the precious lifeblood of a project about which the women knew nothing, all of them coursing toward a place that officially did not exist.”

Denise Kiernan had me at (hello, ah, no…no…) at the Introduction! Wow! This was going to be a humdinger of a story, you could just sense it by her wonderful writing and based on all the knowledge, and the way in which it’s richly detailed.  Oh the lengths the US Government did to keep this one of the best kept secrets ever! Fascinating! But what I found even more fascinating was the number of women that were involved from the scientific knowledge down to the most menial of tasks required in order to unleash “The Gadget”.

Here’s what The Girls of Atomic City is all about: They came from all across the United States, to a city not found on any map.

They were forbidden to talk about their work, even to each other.

They were racing against the clock to save their country . . .  and what they created there would change the war—and the world—forever.

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents and was using as much power as New York City . . . but to most of the world, it was as if the town didn’t exist.

Thousands of workers (many of them young women from small towns across the South) were recruited to work in this secret city, enticed by good wages and the promise of war-ending work. But most of them never guessed what was really being made in those enormous factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains—until the end of the war, when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed.

In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan traces the astonishing story of these unsung World War II workers through interviews with dozens of surviving women workers and other Oak Ridge residents. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is history and science made fresh and vibrant—a beautifully told, deeply researched story that unfolds in a suspenseful and exciting way. (From Goodreads)

It is meticulously researched and detailed, but the beauty of this story shines brighter thanks to Kiernan’s writing.  It felt as though you were reading an historical fiction novel. She has managed to meld together the facts with a story that unfolds as though it were fictitious. Every page was fascinating to read! She balanced the scientific facts with the profiles of just a few of the vast number of women that worked on this Project. She writes wonderfully, like my “go-to” phrase when describing an author’s writing – like butter, like poetry. She covers so very much, all the extremely interesting material, and even when she’s describing the chemistry and scientific nature of The Project, it is done so very well and written in a manner that even I (a horrendous failure of sciences in school) could understand. Not only understand, but enjoy, or rather, continue to be thoroughly intrigued.

She covers so many of the issues that presented itself with this massive undertaking. Not only of the government’s secrecy, but also the parts that cover what psychological issues this new community faced – this work, this project was so highly secret that you were separated from your spouse, or even if you were not, you were not allowed to share anything at all that occurred during your day. Imagine coming home from work and not being able to talk with your family about the little mundane or eventful things that happened at work that day? There was no way for any one to decompress after work. She also covers the unintended social experiment the CEW and its hidden location became. Everything detailed inside was all so very fascinating and so well presented.

She has quietly inserted moments that end up exploding on the page. So quietly and unassuming these words seem until they explode with their meaning and secrets. From trying to erase the memory of one soldier who has uncovered what they are about to unleash, to human experimentation, to the dangerous levels of radiation these “couriers” of the “Product” were exposed to, to the test launch conducted in New Mexico. All of these efforts, these colossal efforts were done under an incredible and amazing, iron-clad cloak of secrecy.

Also quietly placed in there, days before the release of “the Gadget” first over Hiroshima, President Truman wrote in his diary that Stalin had indicated the Japanese Emperor’s request for peace. Some of the scientists also involved wrote the President urging him to consider the “moral responsibilities”. However, there was no turning back, and much of these petitions went unsent, locked away from the President’s eyes. So then the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki and an intended third one was being prepared when Japan surrendered.

In all, absolutely fascinating information and a tremendously fascinating read. Just as we all here thought when we first laid eyes on this book and its description.

What is fascinating as well, are the stories of these remarkable women. They left their families behind, sometimes even their children to go to a place that could not and would not be located on any map. They were told absolutely nothing about what they were doing. All these women knew was that they would be helping to bring their brothers, cousins and fiances home from the war. For them, that was plenty enough information, and all they needed to know.

And what struck me the most as I closed this book, was the realization that the role, the innovation, the power of women, and in this case, in discovering and creating a weapon of such powerful and devastating destruction, is easily, readily and acceptably dismissed, discredited and ignored. And that the woman, Lise Meitner, that was part of the two-person team with Otto Hahn to discover fission was not even mentioned when Otto Han was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He himself! did not even mention his partner. Nor, after all that was said and done concerning these atomic bombs, did the government ever acknowledge the work of the hundreds upon thousands of women that made it all possible. And also, of important note, there was nothing at all ever done to talk to these women, not only to thank them for their efforts, but also to just council them on the impact with what this knowledge certainly did their psyches. Again, completely dismissed and ignored! So thank you very much to Denise Kiernan for bringing their importance and their efforts forward to the public’s attention.

NPR conducted an interview with Denise about the book, you can listen to that here. The book is also out now, and available at all retailers. Denise is also doing a book tour, and one of her stops will be in Oak Ridge, Tennessee:

March 19, 6 PM:
American Museum of Science & Energy
Oak Ridge, TN

(oh how I wish I could be there for that stop!)

4 solid stars for this excellent and fascinating read. It had me and still has me thinking!  I truly enjoyed this book and am so glad we had the pleasure of reading it in advance.

I did search out Oak Ridge on the net out of interest, and it is very interesting to see how their acknowledgement of it’s beginnings are with pride on their website and many other links pertaining to Oak Ridge, TN.

The US Army Corps of Engineers also has a page showcasing these remarkable women, here.

The pictures below were taken by J. Edward Westcott, the official Manhattan Project photographer and I accessed them from The Atlantic from the article “Secret City“. (You can also find more information about J. Edward Westcott, plus many Westcott photos, here: )

atomic girls  atomic  atomic girl