Title: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical (40s), Fiction
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss
In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes this riveting novel of the everyday people 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.
The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard is an absolutely fascinating novel about four disparate people who work at the atomic research lab in Oak Ridge, TN during World War II.
Eighteen year old June Walker is a farm girl whose future husband is killed not long after he enlists in WW II. Leaving her family and small town behind, she goes to the super secret military reservation in the newly created Oak Ridge, TN which, coincidentally, is built on land her grandfather and his neighbors were forced to sell to the Army. After filling out reams of paperwork, she is assigned to a boring job adjusting knobs for a project she knows nothing about.
June’s roommate, Cici Roberts, is a beautiful yet shallow young woman who is popular with the men but not very well liked by women other than June. Cici is a fun-loving, good-time girl who has a very selfish reason for accepting a job in Oak Ridge. While the two women are initially rather good friends, they eventually fall out over June’s boyfriend, Dr. Sam Cantor.
Originally excited to leave academia for a job at the lab, Sam’s enthusiasm soon wanes once he fully comprehends the magnitude of the work he is doing. He is rather morose and drinks to excess to deal with his conflicted feelings. He works in the same building as June and their chance meeting at a New Year’s Eve party is the beginning of their unlikely romance.
Joe Brewer left his wife and three children behind in Alabama when he took the job as a construction worker at Oak Ridge. The negro workers are not allowed to live with their spouses and Joe misses his family desperately. He is also growing quite concerned over his friend Ralph’s friendships with other activists who are working to improve condition for the negro workers.
With the war in Europe finally winding down, the race to develop a bomb before the Germans loses its urgency but work still continues at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, NM. The project remains shrouded in secrecy although Sam has confided in June the exact nature of their research. The various situations for June, Sam, Cici and Joe quickly come to a head as the US continues fighting the Japanese and the scientists’ research finally culminates in success. Cici is disgusted by June’s romance with the much older, Jewish scientist and their friendship suffers as a consequence. Joe is increasingly worried about Ralph as racial tensions increase. As Sam becomes more despondent and his drinking escalates, his relationship with June continues to deteriorate.
The Atomic City Girls is an educational exploration of a mostly unknown piece of American history. The characters are well-developed and add vital insight to the events that are unfolding. Although Los Alamos is famous for its part in the building of the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oak Ridge, TN’s role is not well publicized. Janet Beard’s meticulous research brings this little known but immensely interesting portion of history vibrantly to life. This all around riveting read also includes a lovely epilogue so readers know what happens to the various characters long after their lives intersect in Oak Ridge.