While reading The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, I surprised even myself with the strength of my response to the book: part anger at the way the world used to work, part appreciation at how much has changed. I had to constantly remind myself that it was a different era, and that it isn’t fair to apply modern standards to past events. Beautifully written, and an absolutely fantastic read, but it still was unsettling to see what my life could have been like, not too long ago.
Kiernan tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II, and more specifically, the story of the women who lived and worked there, making the atomic bomb possible. Thousands of civilians (most of them female) worked in secrecy for over two years, hidden from the outside world, and told nothing about the jobs they were doing. Workers knew enough to perform their assigned tasks, and no more. Questions were forbidden; curiosity frowned upon. Even those who did manage to piece together a few suspicions didn’t talk about their conclusions. The simplest social cues became fraught with unintended meaning: asking a friend or spouse “How was your day?” could cause serious problems. All of this secrecy and silence, on top of the pressures and difficulties of war that the rest of the country dealt with on a daily basis.
As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how well I would have fared in such an environment; could I have done what these women (and men, too) did? I honestly don’t know. We live in such a different age, a more cynical one, less inclined to take things at face value and more inclined to question everything we’re told. In a society accustomed to information overload, I don’t know that I could have stood having such a sudden paucity. Constrained silence isn’t my style, either; I love to talk, and very often speak before I think – another facet of life at Oak Ridge which only increases my admiration for these remarkable women.
The anger I described in my first paragraph comes purely from the fact that this is an accurate snapshot of the period – and all the casual and ingrained sexism that comes with it. To take one of the more egregious examples, Jane Greer, one of the statisticians who tracked production at the Y-12 plant, initially wanted to be an engineer. However, while registering for courses at the University of Tennessee, she was yanked out of line and told that females weren’t allowed to matriculate in engineering. Instead, she could study statistics. This was just one example among many in the book – situations where these ladies handled themselves with incredible grace and poise, whereas I doubt I could have managed such sangfroid in their shoes.
Okay, rant over; I’m going to step down off my soapbox, because this really isn’t what the book is about. The treatment of women as second-class citizens, pervasive as that attitude is throughout the era, was only one aspect of life at Oak Ridge. For the most part, Kiernan’s cast of characters persevere, working around or through this mindset as best they can, and ignoring what they cannot change. It’s the fault of the historical setting, nothing more. Moving on.
I loved this book.
It’s a fascinating read, peering behind the veil of secrecy and classified information, but at times a frustrating one. Kiernan has deliberately constructed her narrative to reflect (at least partially) the same sense of compartmentalization that dictated every aspect of life at Oak Ridge during the war. Code names are everywhere, and even uranium and plutonium are never described by their proper names, at least until the “Girls” discover (to some degree, anyway) exactly what they were doing for over two years – which doesn’t occur until the bombs are dropped on Japan. In between narrating the lives of individual women, Kiernan places the work at Oak Ridge in the larger context of both the scientific discoveries that led up to the bomb, and World War II making the bomb a necessity. Again, the focus is on the female contributions, and the story is usually told through their eyes. Men aren’t ignored, far from it – they make vital contributions and are important characters, but this just isn’t their book.
Overall, it’s a remarkable story, one not really told until now; a more nuanced look at the “Rosie the Riveter” image. By the end, you really care about the women – their stories are occasionally sad, often hilarious, but always entertaining. After the war, some left Oak Ridge; other stayed and made their lives in what was supposed to be a temporary installation. Amazingly, most of the “Girls” mentioned by name are still alive, and Kiernan was lucky enough to interview them in writing her book. As with other World War II veterans, however, they are growing older, and their experiences will vanish with them. This is a story that needed to be told, now, before it’s too late.