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The Atomic City Girls: A Novel Paperback – February 6, 2018
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From the Publisher
“Suspenseful and intriguing...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)
“The Atomic City Girls is a fascinating and compelling novel about a little known piece of WWII history.” (Maggie Leffler, international bestselling author of The Secrets of Flight)
“Both page-turning and illuminating, The Atomic City Girls brings to life an eerie piece of world history.” (Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles)
“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))
“[...] 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)
“Fans of historical fiction will devour this complex and human look at the people involved in the creation of the atomic bomb. A fascinating look at an underexplored chapter of American history.” (Kirkus)
“The Atomic City Girls explores love, war and patriotism, forcing the reader to consider the devastating effects of Hiroshima. Once readers learn that Beard’s own aunt was one of the workers, the intimate knowledge and specific details of Oak Ridge come to life even more.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
From the Back Cover
“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, twenty-four-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young women 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 beloved family back home in Alabama, 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.
Top customer reviews
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Right from the start I was awed by the well-rounded approach author Janet Beard presented for the reader. Oak Ridge was quite the conglomeration of very different people, from the top scientific minds and trained soldiers to hardworking yet undereducated local women and African American field hands and everything in between. While still separated for the most part by race and class they all nonetheless lived for years within this highly secured fishbowl of hard work and fast play that served to not only shoot the Allies into the lead of atomic warfare but served to foster quite a lot of drama for its inhabitants. They all came to Oak Ridge for a variety of reasons - to escape guilt, to find a wealthy husband, to prove oneself a worthy man even if not fighting across seas, to try and secure a better future for ones family, and much more - and none left without being highly effected by what they experienced there.
My favorite aspect of the novel was the attention given to the actual day to day goings on of the people who lived there. They worked long, odd shifts (work that was done without really knowing why it was being done...all the secrets!) and had a vast variety of goods and entertainment at hand at all hours - a movie theatre, cafeteria, pharmacy and grocery, bowling alley, dance hall, and more. They lived in a variety of housing as well, depending on their rank, marital status, and race, whether that be trailers, dormitories, or traditional houses. The women dressed in their best, brightest dresses whenever possible and men sought to impress in pristine dress or uniforms (most at least). There was even a more dangerous side for those that sought it out, filled with things like gambling and illegal alcohol. It all comes to life in an exciting way and really drives home the unique and exhilarating time and place this would have been.
My only real issue (if it can be called that) with the story was some of the highly unsympathetic characters who I sometimes found a distraction from the more interesting central theme of what was actually happening at Oak Ridge. While I enjoyed both June and Joe as well as the perspectives they brought to the table, I found both Sam and Cici just awful people. Cici is particularly horrid, using anyone and anything in her power to get what she wants and to ensure she is able to put everyone else in their places, way below her. Sam is a practiced complainer and alcoholic who doesn't treat June the way she deserves and seems to be unhappy no matter what he is experiencing. While these two characters serve their purposes in moving along certain aspects of the narrative (in particular Sam), I would have preferred they not be such dislikable characters. These aspects of their personalities didn't add anything to the story for me and served to only irritate me when they showed up on the page. I also have to wonder at the title of the story as it's about so much more than the women who worked at Oak Ridge. Joe and (unfortunately) Sam are as much a part of the overall story as June and Cici, making the title seem like an odd choice to me.
Overall, The Atomic City Girls was a fascinating look at this singular place and time in history. I very much enjoyed learning about what was being done at Oak Ridge and the interesting environment it was for those that worked there. I should also mention that each chapter ends with actual historical photographs from Oak Ridge, which I LOVED. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly that which takes placed during WWII, will enjoy the peek into this insular world not as well known (at least not to me) as other aspects of the war.
The pay is good, and there is a ready supply of soldiers and civilian employees to occupy the young women during their free time. Oak Ridge operates 24 hours a day because of its top-secret mission. Workers are warned not to speak to anyone about what they see, hear or experience at Oak Ridge. Because no one can really be trusted, this makes conversation even among co-workers a bit tricky. It is difficult to weigh every word that one speaks throughout the course of a day.
Three other characters figure prominently in THE ATOMIC CITY GIRLS. June’s roommate, Cici, has one goal in mind --- to cast off her family’s poverty as sharecroppers and marry a wealthy young man. Joe Brewer, a colored construction worker (remember, readers, this book is set in 1944 in the South, and segregation is still a very unpleasant reality), has left his family in Alabama to come to Oak Ridge where he can make decent money. The last important character is a brilliant scientist, Sam Cantor, who heads the department where June works.
Sam is a rather dour figure. Negative and moody, he attempts to medicate his worries with alcohol but is not successful in forgetting the ultimate goal of the work being done, because he knows the secret of Oak Ridge. It is part of the Manhattan Project. Highly critical material created at Oak Ridge is sent to a top-secret facility across the country, where it is being used to create the atomic bomb. Sam, as a physicist, knows too well the awful truth about the utter devastation that will be unleashed if the Manhattan Project succeeds. No wonder he is depressed and trying to drink himself into oblivion! June and Sam carry on an intimate relationship, and bit by bit Sam reveals to June the true mission of Oak Ridge, putting both of them in danger for sharing the protected information.
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.
Reviewed by Carole Turner