The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

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Overview

The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” —Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City

At the height of World ...

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The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

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Overview

The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” —Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not appear on any map. Thousands of civilians, many of them young women from small towns across the U.S., were recruited to this secret city, enticed by the promise of solid wages and war-ending work. What were they actually doing there? Very few knew. The purpose of this mysterious government project was kept a secret from the outside world and from the majority of the residents themselves. Some wondered why, despite the constant work and round-the-clock activity in this makeshift town, did no tangible product of any kind ever seem to leave its guarded gates? The women who kept this town running would find out at the end of the war, when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed and changed the world forever.

Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. “A phenomenal story,” and Publishers Weekly called it an “intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history.”

“Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city...Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.” —The Washington Post

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Even though it used more electricity than New York City, Oak Ridge, Tennessee didn't appear on WWII era maps and the great majority of the 75,000 people who lived and worked there didn't know on what project they were working until long after their job was done. In fact, "Atomic City" didn't really acquire its nickname until after its top secret uranium project was completed. This new release tells the story of the women who worked there and how they helped win the war. Spiced generously with interviews and government documents, Denise Kiernan's narrative captures the camaraderie and mystery of this self-contained community, reminding us again that we're still learning vital things about that now distant era. Editor's recommendation.

The Washington Post - Scott Martelle
The fascinating story of the Manhattan Project has been told often, and often told well…But given the project's significant and lasting impact, there's plenty more mining to be done, and Denise Kiernan has found a rich vein in The Girls of Atomic City. Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.
Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
“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.”

“This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience.”

"Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor."

“Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb.”

“I love these kinds of books, and this is a great one....It’s a phenomenal story.”

The Girls of Atomic City is the best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story about a remarkable group of women who performed clandestine and vital work during World War II. Denise Kiernan recreates this forgotten chapter in American history in a work as meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.”

"A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb - from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden - The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer's genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class."

Kirkus Reviews
A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. Kiernan (co-author: Stuff Every American Should Know, 2012, etc.) examines the construction of what became known as Oak Ridge, Tenn., a city built as part of the atomic bomb program. She has worked intensively with surviving women members of the work force and with local residents to put together the oral history on which this account is based. In the two years after the federal government took ownership of around 80,000 acres of mountain woodland and farm sites, the population rose to 75,000, and consumption of electric power from the nearby generating plant outpaced New York City. Many of the workers recruited were young women from farm backgrounds whom project administrators judged to be particularly suitable to the kinds of work that needed to be done, under the veil of secrecy that was imposed. The security and discouragement from talking about work becomes a pervasive feature of Kiernan's narrative. Those who violated guidelines were speedily removed, never to be seen around the site again. The author parallels her account of the construction of Oak Ridge with chapters on the development of the science that made nuclear fission possible, and she shows how Oak Ridge became a city and community after the war. An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.
—The Washingtonian
“Great, relevant, readable.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Kiernan’s accounts ring with authenticity.…The Girls of Atomic City is fascinating."
New York Post
“The image of Rosie the Riveter — women filling in at factories to help the war effort — is well known. But women also assisted on the Manhattan Project, signing up for secret work in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to help build the atomic bomb. Kiernan looks at the lives and contributions of these unsung women who worked in jobs from secretaries to chemists.”
The Boston Globe
“Kiernan…brings a unique and personal perspective to this key part of American history.…Instead of the words of top scientists and government officials, Kiernan recounts the experiences of factory workers, secretaries, and low-level chemists in a town that housed at its peak 75,000 people trained not to talk about what they knew or what they did. She combines their stories with detailed reporting that provides a clear and compelling picture of this fascinating time.”
The San Francisco Book Review
“Kiernan’s focus is on the intimate and often strange details of work and life at Oak Ridge. It’s told in a novelistic style and is an intimate look at the experiences of the young women who worked at Oak Ridge and the local residents whose lives were changed by the presence of the project.”
The Washington Post
“Fascinating ... Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research. ... Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Kiernan’s book, the result of seven years of research and interviews with the surviving 'girls,' sparkles with their bright, WWII slang and spirit, and takes readers behind the scenes into the hive-like encampments and cubicles where they spent their days and nights.…The Girls of Atomic City brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us — their children, grandchildren, and greats — to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation's women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else's. Ever. Anywhere."
Booklist
“Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb.”
Karen Abbott
The Girls of Atomic City is the best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story about a remarkable group of women who performed clandestine and vital work during World War II. Denise Kiernan recreates this forgotten chapter in American history in a work as meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.”
DailyBeast.com
"Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor."
BrainPickings.org
"A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb — from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden — The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer's genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class."
Jon Stewart
“I love these kinds of books, and this is a great one....It’s a phenomenal story.”
Library Journal
Kiernan (Signing Their Lives Away) writes compellingly of the women who toiled in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Living and working with thousands of others in a secret city built almost overnight, those involved in the "Project" were unaware that they were contributing to the most revolutionary scientific discovery of the 20th century. Moving between the individual narratives of the women workers and the story of the development of atomic fusion, Kiernan emphasizes the secretive nature of the work yet gives readers a greater understanding of the larger historical context. The endnotes provide comprehensive information about primary sources consulted as well as oral interviews Kiernan undertook with surviving workers. However, no complete bibliography is included. VERDICT This work complements Russell Olwell's At Work in the Atomic City: A Labor and Social History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kiernan capably captures the spirit of women's wartime opportunities and their sacrifices in what is ultimately a captivating narrative. Recommended reading for popular history fans.—Kathryn Wells, Fitchburg State Univ. Lib., MA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451617528
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Pages: 373
  • Sales rank: 110,219
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Denise Kiernan is the author of Signing Their Lives Away and Signing their Rights Away. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Discover, Ms., and other national publications. www.girlsofatomiccity.com.

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Read an Excerpt

The Girls of Atomic City


  • There have long been secrets buried deep in the southern Appalachians, covered in layers of shale and coal, lying beneath the ancient hills of the Cumberlands, and lurking in the shadow of the Smokies at the tail end of the mountainous spine that ripples down the East Coast. This land of the Cherokee gave way to treaties and settlers and land grants. Newcomers traversed the Cumberland Gap to establish small farms and big lives in a region where alternating ridges and valleys cradle newborn communities in the nooks and crannies of the earth. Isolated. Independent. Hidden.

In 1942, a new secret came to this part of the world. The earth trembled and shook and made way for an unprecedented alliance of military, industrial, and scientific forces, forces that combined to create the most powerful and controversial weapon known to mankind. This weapon released the power present in the great unseen of the time, unleashing the energy of the basic unit of matter known as the atom.

Author H. G. Wells might have called them Sun Snarers, the people who descended upon the valleys and ridges.

“And we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and—lifeless—lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy . . . ,” Wells wrote in his 1914 book, The World Set Free. This lesser-known title by the War of the Worlds author describes the harnessing of the power of the nucleus: “And these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

Wells wrote this long before the neutron was discovered, let alone fission, and his work began to popularize the phrase “atomic bombs” before those devices ever took form beyond the author’s pages. But years earlier, people in the mountains claim another prophet lay on the ground, overcome with visions of a project that would bring the snaring of the sun to the hills of Tennessee.

They say a prophet foretold it.

A general oversaw it.

And a team of the world’s greatest scientific minds was tasked with making it all come together.

But it was the others, the great and often unseen, who made the visions of the Prophet and the plans of the General and the theories of the scientists a reality. Tens of thousands of individuals—some still reeling from the Depression, others gripped by anxiety and fear as loved ones fought overseas in the most devastating war any of them had known—worked around the clock on this project, the details of which were not explained. For the young adventurers, male and female, who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, doing their part meant living and working in a secret city, a place created from the ground up for one reason and one reason only—to enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat.

Roots have always run deep here. They were dug up and scattered when the strangers with the project came to the foothills of the Cumberlands, but the newcomers, too, could not resist the pull of the earth and dug their own roots down deep into the Tennessee clay, soaked by mountain rain and baked by a thousand suns. Permanent. Enduring.

Many of these workers on this secret project hidden in the hills were young women who had left home to fight the war in their own way. They left farms for factories willingly, wrote letters hopefully, waited patiently and worked tirelessly.

A number of these women—and men—still live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, today. I have had the fascinating and humbling privilege of meeting them, interviewing them, laughing and crying with them and hearing firsthand their tales of life in a secret city while working on a project whose objective was largely kept from them. Over the years they have graciously given me their time and suffered through repeated questions and what must have seemed like insane requests to recall moments from their day-to-day activities roughly 70 years ago. They did so happily and enthusiastically and never, ever with even the slightest bit of bravado. That is not their style. I did not only learn about life on the Manhattan Project. I also found myself taken aback by their sense of adventure and independence, their humility, and their dedication to the preservation of history. I wish I could include each and every one of them in these pages, but I cannot. I hope those who find themselves only in the acknowledgments will accept my thanks in place of my prose. I feel exceptionally lucky to know those who continue to live on, and miss those who have passed since I began working on this book.

Without them, this sun-snaring—this Manhattan Project—would not have achieved its objectives, and because of them a new age was born that would change the world forever.

These are some of their stories.

—Denise Kiernan,

summer 2012

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 44 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 44 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2013

    I read the Manhattan project a while back and then saw an interv

    I read the Manhattan project a while back and then saw an interview  with Denis Keirnan. Interesting read especially for those of us with WWIi parents.  She tells the story of Oakridge mostly  through the eyes of women who worked there.  Good read.

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2013

    Fascinating History

    I saw an interview with the author Denise Kiernan on the Daily Show and was hooked. This book goes in to the lives of several woman who worked on the Manhattan project during WWII with out knowing what they worked on.

    The book is segmented in a way that doesn't always make it easy for the reader to follow. However, that is what the experiences was for these woman. They lived and worked in an environment that was hugely segmented.

    This book was hard to put down. Wonderfully written. More people should know about this place in our nations history.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2013

    Enjoyed meeting these women.

    Makes me want to read more about Oak Ridge. Learned a lot.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2013

    This book has some interesting anecdotes and stories told by wom

    This book has some interesting anecdotes and stories told by women who worked at the plant in Oak Ridge. However, there were so many sentences repeated, grammar unedited, and poor wording that one wonder if the author was perhaps a better researcher than writer. Perhaps her editor was at fault, but the book becomes boring and segmented. This is a story that needs to be told. We know so much about the men who built the bomb, but the efforts of the women left at home during the war needs to explored. This book misses the mark.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2013

    The mother of a close friend is in the picture on the cover. Sh

    The mother of a close friend is in the picture on the cover. She worked in Chicago, at Berkeley, at Oak Ridge, and then back at Berkeley as a young chemist. She died never telling a soul what she did during those years - quite an adventure for a rancher's daughter from the plains of South Dakota - except that she used to pipette solutions with her mouth and she always wore a radiation badge. Because of her length of involvement, she undoubtedly understood what was happening. It's a fascinating and remarkable story of the dedication to a particular mission and the role that women had in the war effort.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    Great Read

    I love WW II books--fiction and non-fiction. This is a story that hasn't been told. Its remarkable that the greatest secret of the was kept even though thousands of workers built and worked at several huge installations for months making the first atomic bombs.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    As a Historian, this book is an essential read for anyone interested in WWII or the Manhattan Project. To go with it I recommend R Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun". He has more about the building of the plants where these women worked and how big and dangerous they were. Of course, everyone involved was learning about radiation. The girls of Atomic City were amazing and accomplished a lot. Especially neat is the mention that they could operate some of the equipment better and faster then the physicists.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2013

    This book was a very difficult book to read. I felt like I was


    This book was a very difficult book to read. I felt like I was in a chemistry class with all the formulas included in the text. The characters were boring and not well written. Had it not been for my book club, I would not have finished this book. Had I not purchased it on my Nook, I would have returned it for a refund! Too bad such an important event in the history of our country was written so poorly!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Detailed personal stories of those who "didn't know what they were doing at the time"

    Denise did an indepth study into the personal lives of several women who experienced being uprooted and moving to a town in Tennessee with no name. I enjoyed the stories but I thought the information dragged on. I think the info could have been done in 100 less pages!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013

    I lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during this time. This book has

    I lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during this time. This book has incorrect facts. It give a false impression of Oak Ridge during that time period. You can't rely on 90-year-olds memory. 1943 was a much different world than 2013. Judging 1943 Oak Ridge by 2013 standards is an injustice. I found the book boring. Others said that they could not get into it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2014

    This book is disappointing. I think the subject matter could be

    This book is disappointing. I think the subject matter could be very interesting and worthwhile. But the flow changes too frequently from one character or  from one topic to another. It's easy to lose track. It's not really in a sequential story format,. i'm only a third of the way through, and I want to read it because of the subject matter, but  I don't know how much longer I am going to stand it.  I also find the author's use of specific words annoying at times. Sometimes the author attempts to insert the thoughts of the characters and those thoughts are too obvious, she doesn't really know the thoughts, or they appear to be designed  to have an effect on the reader. They don't naturally flow, and the author is making too much of an attempt to create drama. It doesn't work. I'm finding the whole thing disjointed. Different fonts are used for different chapters. That's annoying. When I read a book, I want the writing to entice me and not be distracted by varying fonts. Lots of scientific jargon and duplication, and skipping around with unrelated people and events. So far, it's hard to fit things and the people together, because of the bouncing around and lack of connection. History can be made much more readable. Pictures were enjoyable. The newspapers citing their praises at the front of the book do not give an accurate portrayal of the content.  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2014

    Great book!

    This book was so interesting! I never knew Oak Ridge existed. If you love history you will love this book! I felt so connected to the characters.. Great read.

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  • Posted June 28, 2014

    Well written and interesting story of the women of Oakridge. I l

    Well written and interesting story of the women of Oakridge. I learned much about the huge operation to produce the atomic bomb.



    side stories about racism, community and group effort. Women scientists and treatment by their male counterparts. I think I will go on to the Wives of Los Alamos next! Highly recommend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2014

    MAP AND RULES

    Map is first res map and rules second res were we meet third res chatroom fourth res bios fifth res where you try out for the squad and sixth res is the newsboard-hope you have fun~sincerly your team captain alexandria

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  • Posted April 28, 2014

    In a remote valley in Tennessee in the midst of a World War and

    In a remote valley in Tennessee in the midst of a World War and over a period of less than three years a city rose up - Oak Ridge. Into that city poured much of the wealth of a nation, vast quantities of material and somewhere on the order of 80,000 people. Where once stood a few itinerant farms, there appeared homes, schools, hospitals, stores, libraries and some of the largest buildings ever to appear on the planet. Out of that city came, well, virtually nothing much - a few pounds of metal - a metal know then only as tubealloy.
    The Girls of Atomic City details the lives of a few women from among thousands who were hired to support the single purpose of this vast industrial gamble - the enrichment of one isotope of tubealloy (uranium) (235) over another (238) to an extent that would be fissionable - a bomb. Much of the technical aspects of this story have been told before. This book by Denise Kiernan emphasizes the extraordinary efforts at maintaining secrecy while simultaneously creating a workforce not only from scratch, but a workforce that would not know for nearly three years what it was they were manufacturing. "When this meter moves right, push this button. When this gage goes up turn this dial left. Don't talk to your neighbor. Don't ask why." The women in these stories, the soldiers who were pulled from draft lines to work there, and the army of civilians who supported the vast construction projects all had to carry out their often highly technical work perfectly without ever knowing how their accomplishments related to the woman or man standing next to them.
    Besides personalizing an otherwise highly technical "Rosy the Riveter" tale of women rising to the occasion, The Girls of Atomic City also successfully conveys the spirit of a time past in U.S. history when the actions of the government were not only not automatically questioned but were embraced as good and necessary.
    With 30 pages of detailed Notes that comprise a short book on their own and an Index, The Girls of Atomic City is an inspiring if sobering tale of what humans can accomplish to win a war. Would that we are equally successful in winning the war to save the planet as we have been in destroying it.
    Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University

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  • Posted April 20, 2014

    Extremely well written!!

    I usually don't read history books - boring! But this book was above and beyond interesting. It included human interest stories as well as historical facts. And to find out how it was done so secretly was fascinating! The book reveals how fortunate we were to be able to have developed this technology and work together to win the war.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2014

    Interesting topic

    Interesting part of history. I enjoyed the mix of personal takes at Oak Ridge mixed with the development of the bomb. However, I had a hard time staying interested in the womens' storylines, I think due to the fragmentation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2013

    Highly Recommended- Well worth the time!

    Outstanding book for those who appreciate nonfiction, especially from the WWII era. I was fascinated with the various characters and their ability to cope in spite of the restrictions under which they were living. Talented women.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2013

    Very informative

    Loved learning the behind the scene story coulf not fathom how i would react after the fact

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2013

    I loved this book! I was born & raised in Oak Ridge and my

    I loved this book! I was born & raised in Oak Ridge and my parents both worked in the plants, so I was familiar with most of the facts of this book. However, I never fully understood the emotion of what these people experienced. This book does an amazing job of telling you the story behind the story, the real people that made such a huge difference in the war. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it.

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