The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

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

3.8 59
by Denise Kiernan
     
 

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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 US history.

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—

Overview

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 US history.

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.

Editorial Reviews

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.)
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.”
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."

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 Washingtonian
“Great, relevant, readable.”
American Political Science Association
"Kiernan has contributed a new and vital chapter to studies of American political development and women and politics."
--The Washingtonian
“Great, relevant, readable.”
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 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."
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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451617528
Publisher:
Touchstone
Publication date:
03/05/2013
Pages:
373
Sales rank:
406,024
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.28(d)

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

  • Meet the Author

    Denise Kiernan’s previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, is a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and NPR bestseller, and was named as one of Amazon’s Top 100 Best Books of 2013. Kiernan has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, Ms. Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Discover, and many more publications. She has been a featured guest on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” PBS NewsHour, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

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    The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
    Jane_AustenAP More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Makes me want to read more about Oak Ridge. Learned a lot.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    i wanted to like this book but it was as tedious as life among the worker bees at Atomic City
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.  
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    walthesalt More than 1 year ago
    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.
    MayDefarge More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
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    SuperReaderChick More than 1 year ago
    This book was incredibly interesting and really shed light onto a little known place and part of WWII. The amount of secrecy that was kept by the thousands of people living and working in Oak Ridge really speaks for the determination of the time and the drive to win the war at all costs. The book was easy to read and well-written, making me feel like I was there right alongside the women. They worked for an incredible cause, but still had their own hope and dreams that they wanted to live out. They were just ordinary women doing extraordinary work. I highly recommend this book and hope someday to be able to make a visit to Oak Ridge and stand where they once stood.
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    Delphimo More than 1 year ago
    A part of American history that seems incredible in the scope of the accomplishments. The situation unfolds in clouds of secrecy, and the reader wonders how the public remains ignorant of work. Kiernan presents a story that reminds me of Hitler's concentration camps, but with humane treatment of the inhabitants. These men and women came from all over the United States to aid in creating the atomic bomb that would bring WWII to a conclusion. Kiernan skillfully balances the story among the different sectors of the world that worked on this project. The detail became too minute at times, especially the discussion of the chemistry and the construction of the "city" in Tennessee. I enjoyed reading of the various individuals that worked on the project and the effect on their life. The book creates a sense of awe that the government orchestrated this production in such secrecy.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The details were not interesting to me as to how it was built, all the chemistry terms! I was expecting to read more about the girls and their lives. The book had too many characters to keep track of. The history was interesting but it should have been a history book without the many characters. I'd fall asleep when it came to the science facts, I never was interested in chemistry. It just seemed to jump around a lot.
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