The Atomic City Girls, A Novel

The Atomic City Girls, A Novel by Janet Beard

My dad fought in the Pacific during World War II, was severely injured, healed and went right back into battle. His brothers fought in England and Germany, liberating the victims of war. My mom was back here, in Wisconsin, doing her part for the war effort; the victory garden, rationing, volunteering for the red cross and donating her stockings. Therefore, although I was born in the 1960’s, I grew up hearing a lot about, having a great respect for, and a personal connection to the many human interest stories from that horrible, yet historic time. I was quite intrigued when a friend suggested that I read “The Atomic City Girls”, by Janet Beard.

From the author’s website:

““What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

Evenings are spent flirting at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. While June wants to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young physicist from New York who understands the end goal only too well, her beautiful roommate Cici’s goal is to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.””

From the beginning, I liked the book. Beard gets the ball rolling immediately by starting with the character June Walker’s elderly grandfather being evicted from his Tennessee mountain home, quite urgently, by government officials. From that very moment, I knew I was going to be drawn into the human interest angle of what some everyday people here in the states actually sacrificed for the war effort.

I never knew about Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I knew about the bombs, I knew about the many men and women working on the homefront to support the war effort, but I had never even thought about what was required to develop and build these atomic bombs, from the human angle. I guess in my imagination, it was only the smartest of our scientists teaming together to make this happen, in well-established, secret and not-so secret laboratories. I knew that ordinary citizens worked in factories to make parts of the bombs, but I thought of those as the metal parts, the very visible parts. It never hit me that so many ordinary citizens actually worked and lived in Oak Ridge, which literally was built overnight, for the sole purpose of creating the atomic bomb. I never thought of so many people, uneducated and unknowing about what they were actually doing for the top-secret development of the guts of the atomic bomb.

“The Atomic City Girls” explores love, war, patriotism, race, loyalty and societal norms of the times. To do so, Ms. Beard builds characters and settings that are very well-researched, making you feel as if you’re actually there. The blowing of each bit of dirt that rises up from the unpaved roads in this always expanding village is written with such clarity that you can feel it sticking to your brow on a hot, humid Tennessee day. The characters are, for the most part, likeable and relatable, and combining their stories with the very detailed writing about the setting, the book is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, giving the reader a glimpse into what was actually happening as the bomb was being built, from a variety of viewpoints.

The way the author addresses the moral issues surrounding the creation of this object of devastation is intriguing. We are introduced to some of the top scientists, who of course know all through the book what the project is. We watch them as they travel through different stages as the work progresses. We are introduced to a few of the atomic city girls, who have no idea what they’re working on, and, of course, we only know their reaction to what they’ve helped create towards the end of the book, when the bomb is actually used. We meet African-American workers, who are happy to have jobs working on this secret project, but are well aware of, and trying to change the segregated conditions they work and live in at Oak Ridge. We are tragically forced to face one of the saddest storylines in the book through the development of these characters.

The fact that practically every minute of the character's lives is spent within the secure walls of Oak Ridge adds an eerie element to the entire story. The characters are well aware that what they're working on is top secret, even though most of them don't even know what it is, and that intense perspective, the shared bond of "we're in this thing together" for the most part sustains them. However, like any group of people forced together for an extended period, differences that were pushed just beneath the surface arise again, tensions grow and the feeling of camaraderie, for some, quickly dissolves. In these days of social media venting and "mean tweets" I cannot imagine any scenario in which an Oak Ridge project would succeed today. Therein lies another facet of this intriguing story.

From the author’s website:

““Beard has taken a project of momentous impact and injected a human element into it... This is approachable, intelligent, and highly satisfying historical fiction.”- Booklist *starred review

“Suspenseful and intriguing, The Atomic City Girls explores an aspect of the Manhattan Project long shrouded in secrecy, bringing to light an important chapter of World War II history.”- Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker

“Fans of historical fiction will devour this complex and human look at the people involved in the creation of the atomic bomb.”- Kirkus Reviews

“Both page-turning and illuminating, The Atomic City Girls brings to life an eerie piece of world history.”- Madeline Miller, New York Times bestselling author of The Song of Achilles

​“In her fast-paced blend of fact and fiction, The Atomic City Girls, Janet Beard uses the viewpoints of a diffuse group of characters to create an impressively realized portrait of life in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”- Bookpage

“Readers who enjoyed Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls will appreciate this glimpse into the beliefs and attitudes that shaped America during World War II.”- Library Journal

“Despite its historically accurate physical details, the realm of The Atomic City Girls remains clearly fictional: character-driven and imaginative.”- Chapter 16

​“An informative portrayal of a significant historical episode often reduced to footnote status.... Beard manages to imbue this well-researched novel with warmth and charm”- Fiction Writers Review

​“Though history long ago informed us of the drastic results of the Manhattan Project, it is interesting to read what life was like for the residents and workers at Oak Ridge. And in this day of ubiquitous and ever-invasive communications, it would be difficult to understand how the Manhattan Project actually pulled off its humongous top-secret goal without the thorough research of author Janet Beard.”- Bookreporter”

The Atomic City Girls is an interesting, informative look at a period of time that shaped the future in immesurable ways. If you’re a fan of historical fiction. or WWII history in general, I’d highly recommend you check it out.

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