The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

An evocative view of the Manhattan Project through the eyes of the women who worked and lived in the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tenn.

atomic

Oak Ridge, Tennessee was born in the fall of 1942, but would remain unknown until August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Oak Ridge, or “Site X,” housed factories for the enrichment of uranium. The workers at those factories at their peak numbered some 75,000, living in a secret city and working on they knew not what.

Diverse young women traveled from around the country fill the jobs needed to help win a war. Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City is a unique glimpse into their strange experience of working on a project whose nature was kept from them. Most expected to leave Oak Ridge as soon as the war was won, but many stayed on for decades. Due to the fine supply of handsome young men in uniform, a number of Kiernan’s subjects would make families and homes there.

Based on interviews with their now-elderly subjects, the stories of Jane the statistician, Virginia the chemist, Kattie the janitor and many more are vivid and human in Kiernan’s telling. The focus of the book briefly zooms out for the dropping of the bomb, visiting Truman’s White House during the decision-making process, but then plunges back into Oak Ridge, where women who tested for leaks in pipes and kept tanks clean were rocked by the revelation of what they’d contributed to. Kiernan melds hard science and history with the moving stories of women caught in events bigger than themselves, whose experiences and whose work changed the world irrevocably. The result is a compelling and unusual new perspective on the Manhattan Project and World War II.


This review originally ran in the March 5, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


While I am always constrained by the limited space available for reviews in Shelf Awareness (you know I can get wordy!), this book was especially difficult to boil down, touching as it does on women’s issues, history, science, working conditions, civil rights, war and ethics… It could be compared to Soundings or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in its intersection of hard science with the creative, feeling portrayal of women’s lives. Additionally, Kiernan’s use of primary sources – interviews with survivors of the era – made me pause to think of my grandfather, a WWII veteran who’s over 90 years old now, whose memories will someday be lost to us. This is a fine book on an interesting subject and I just had to say a few more words to that effect.


Rating: 8 acronyms.

2 Responses

  1. I grew up with my granny telling me stories about this, how they worked in so many small sheds putting it together that way if one part blew up they would only loose a few people. I have always been so interested in this and wish so much that I could find some document with her name on it related or a photo of her. I will buy this book from your website and if you could contact me at susan_motesbentley@yahoo.com so I can possibly learn more about this. Thank you.

    • I’m sorry, Susan, I don’t sell the books here! But I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding it from one of the big online retailers; or you could even call your local bookstore and see if they have it or can order it for you. Shopping local is always nice. I’ll send you an email as you request.

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