This historical fiction book gives the reader four different points of view of the women and men who worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Interspersed with real photographs of the time truly took me back to the 1940s to a place where the War affected everyone and everything.
In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women 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. from Goodreads.
This book may be titled, The Atomic City Girls, but the book highlights the experiences of two fictional women and two fictional men. All four were brought together in Oak Ridge, Tennessee when a city sprang up out of nowhere for the direct purpose of supporting the war effort. Just as the Manhattan Project was focused on building the first nuclear bomb, the work at Oak Ridge was wholly concerned with creating plutonium. The workers, separated not just by gender but also race, were all working toward a goal that only a few knew and even less truly understood.
Generally, this little book manages to plug away at the story without falling victim to sounding either like a melodrama or a research report. Balancing the real history of Oak Ridge with the personal stories of fictional characters is difficult but introducing four different perspectives threw me off the story, at first. Gradually, I could see that the author was attempting to show, through these characters, the major perspectives of the people who lived and worked at the facility and how their lives and futures were intertwined.
June and Cici: The Young Female Workers
June is 18 when she first heads to Oak Ridge for a job. Drawn to the factory by her older sister Rose and the loss of her fiance in the war, June is looking for a fresh start and a purpose in her life. She is roomed with two other girls, one made invisible by her opposing shift assignment, and one larger than life – Cici.
Cici is beautiful enough to get away with anything and she has come to Oak Ridge with the specific purpose of finding a rich husband and escaping her sharecropping roots. She may have reinvented herself but she cannot shake her need to be the focus of attention – unless that attention comes from someone who knew her before her metamorphosis.
While June is arguably the main character of this story, Cici is cast as the villain. Whereas June is working to do her part for America, Cici is biding her time until she can find the richest man to marry. Cici is racist and conniving and June is wholesome, hard working, and kind. Cici, and her use as a foil for June, was the weakest part of this book. On the surface, her addition to the story seemed minimal unless the point was that, for so many women, the war provided both a hurdle to finding an eligible husband and an opportunity to meet people well outside of your social station.
Meanwhile, June is the character we love to root for in these stories. Hardworking and kind, June is using the opportunities provided to her at Oak Meadow to change her life for the better and not just to find a man. The best parts of June’s story were not her eventual romantic woes, but the professional opportunities that she seized.
Dr. Sam Cantor: The Physicist
Sam is a (relatively) young Jewish Physicist from New York who has arrived in Oak Ridge by way of Stanford. He knows only too well the true mission of the factory. When he and June meet he sees in her the humanity and goodness he has slowly lost through his work.
Truly, I could have done without the romantic angle. However, the addition of Sam provided a perspective of the in-the-know person. Sam not only understood the goals but also the devastation of the theoretical bomb. Putting him into a romance with June also allowed June to grown from the knob-turner machine worker to someone with inside knowledge of what was happening at the factory.
Joe Brewer: The African American Worker
Joe has left his wife and three children behind in Alabama to come to Oak Ridge simply because the pay would provide a better life for his family. Oak Ridge was a segregated town and Joe’s perspective was so radically different than that of June’s, Cici’s, or Sam’s that it almost felt as though they were living in different times. While Sam was wrestling with the ethical issues presented by his science and June was struggling to find her feet, Joe was trying to stay warm and out of the way of white men looking for violence. With Joe is Ralph who is young enough to want more than runny grits and money.
Joe was a fantastic character to showcase both the limited opportunities provided to Black men during the 1940s-1950s but also the thoughts of many in the generation directly before the Civil Rights era in America.
The Story as a Whole
I don’t think I can avoid saying it. There are too many darn people in this story. The book should probably have been called, “The Big Ol’ Mystery of What they were doing at Oak Ridge with a dash of Racism and Awkward Romance.” But I don’t write reviews for books I don’t like so, with that being said, I still enjoyed this story.
After all, how do you tell a story like this otherwise? Realistically, if the author had limited herself to just June or Joe the book would have been a day-in and day-out experience of utter boredom. June and Joe both got up, ate, got in line, worked at what was put in front of them that day, ate, slept and repeat. Workers at Oak Ridge were not knowledgable about the grand plans of the factory and separation between individuals was created specifically to avoid any leaks in information. Enter Sam to enlighten them and Ralph to highlight the inequality. Why Ralph didn’t get his own perspective but Cici did is a question I still have for the author! Together, these characters allowed me to see more of the whole story of what was happening at Oak Ridge.
What I keep coming back to over and over again is the reality for these women. Can you imagine going to work each and every day twisting a knob for weeks or even months to find out that the work you did directly resulted in the bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of so many? Ever since I closed The Atomic City Girls a few days ago, this is the thought that keeps running around in my mind. What kind of damage would that information have on a person? I suppose those are really questions I will find in a nonfiction book, perhaps The Girls of Atomic City.
This story was told to entertain and inform. And, while I have a few issues with how the story meandered along at times, I cannot fault the author with her ability to keep me coming back. I hated Cici, and to a certain degree, Sam. I wanted to read to see them fail. Meanwhile, I was cheering for June and Joe and I returned to the story, chapter after chapter, to make sure they were succeeding and that they would get their happy ever after.
More importantly, this fairly accessible historical fiction has made me more interested in yet another facet of World War II – those women who went to work everyday building the bomb that would end the war without ever knowing what they were doing.
Tell me, please? Can you disagree with the way a story is written and still like the book?