Synopses & Reviews
The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history.
The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, it didn’t appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships — and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men!
But against this vibrant wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work — even the most innocuous details — was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb "Little Boy" was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb.
Though the young women originally believed they would leave Oak Ridge after the war, many met husbands there, made lifelong friends, and still call the seventy-year-old town home. The reverberations from their work there — work they didn’t fully understand at the time — are still being felt today. In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan traces the astonishing story of these unsung WWII workers through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is history and science made fresh and vibrant — a beautifully told, deeply researched story that unfolds in a suspenseful and exciting way.
"During WWII, Oak Ridge, Tenn., was one unlikely epicenter of the Manhattan Project, the top secret program that produced the atomic bomb. Selected in 1942 for its remoteness, the area, 'a big war site' hiring at top dollar, immediately boomed; from across the U.S., tens of thousands of workers streamed in many of them women looking to broaden their horizons and fatten their purses. Fully integrated into the system, women worked every job, from courier to chemist. They found an 'instant community' with 'no history,' but also 'a secret city... a project whose objective was largely kept from them.' Living conditions were Spartan urine samples and guards were intrusive constants but the women lived their lives. Kiernan's (Signing Their Lives Away) interviewees describe falling in love and smuggling in liquor in tampon boxes. But like everyone else, those lives were disrupted by news of Hiroshima. 'Now you know what we've been doing all this time,' said one of the scientists. Many moved on; others stayed Atomic City had become home. But for the women of Oak Ridge, 'a strange mix of... pride and guilt and joy and shame' endured. This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience. 16-page b&w insert. Agent: Yfat Reiss Gendell, Foundry Literary + Media. (Mar.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II....An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.” Kirkus Reviews
AT THE HEIGHT OF WORLD WAR II,
Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians — many of them young women from small towns across the South — were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work. Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war — when Oak Ridge's secret was revealed.
Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it — women who are now in their eighties and nineties — The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country's history.
About the Author
Denise Kiernan is the author of several books, including The Girls of Atomic City, Signing Their Lives Away, and Signing Their Rights Away. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Discover, Ms., and other national publications. Visit her at DeniseKiernan.com.