About the book, The Atomic City Girls
• Paperback: 384 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (February 6, 2018)
“Focuses on the little-known realities behind the Manhattan Project […] 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
In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes this riveting novel of the everyday people who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
“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.
The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: 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.
Buy, read, and discuss The Atomic City Girls:
Born and raised in East Tennessee, Janet Beard earned an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She currently lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio.
As the brief on this novel says, this book is very much in the vein of Hidden Figures, in that it’s a fictionalized version of a true story, and involves women working in STEM fields, on significant projects. The difference, of course, is that June didn’t know what she was working on at the time. In fact she didn’t learn what she’d been a part of until much later.
I felt that reading this novel at a time when we’re talking about arming teachers (please, God, I hope we don’t) was oddly appropriate. It’s easy to believe you have the power to shoot someone, but a far different thing to actually do it. It’s easy to say “kill the enemy!” and much less simple when you realize that enemy has a human face, and human lives.
While I appreciated the historical details author Janet Beard incorporated into her story – beginning with June’s grandfather being forced to leave his cabin in the area about to be commandeered by the U.S. military – what I liked was that she kept things simple and elegant. June is just like any other young woman experiencing her first taste of independence – a job, a romance – it’s just that her universal experience is set against patterns and events – The Manhattan Project – the bombing of Hiroshima – that exist on a vastly different scale.
I found The Atomic City Girls to be a fascinating read and a truly gripping story.
Goes well with a turkey and havarti sandwich with pesto, and a glass of iced tea.
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