Friday, March 20, 2020

Fiction Review: The Atomic City Girls

I recently listened to the audiobook of The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard, a novel about the real-life pop-up town of Oak Ridge, TN, during WWII and the young people who worked there, helping to manufacture (often unwittingly) materials for the atomic bomb. It examines the larger, fascinating time and place through the eyes of a group of interesting characters whose lives are woven together.

June Walker is just eighteen years old when she moves to the newly-built town of Oak Ridge, where her older sister is already working. June is a local girl, and, in fact, her grandfather lived on the land where Oak Ridge is located, until the government moved him out two years earlier. Like many of the young women employed there, she lives in a dorm room with a roommate and works all day adjusting dials according to instructions without knowing what she is actually doing or what the bigger project is. During orientation, the government emphasized the need for tight security, and June isn't even allowed to mention her job or anything about the town in her letters home to her parents. Sam Cantor, a thirty-year old Jewish physicist originally from New York, is in a very different position from June. He was hired from his job teaching at Berkeley to help provide direct assistance to the heart of the project, enriching uranium. He knows all the details of what they are working on and what the final goal is, and ethically, he becomes more and more distressed over their mission the closer they get to achieving it. Joe is an older African-American man, working in construction at Oak Ridge. He had to leave his wife and children behind to take the job, but the pay was too good to turn down. His younger friend, Ralph, is almost like an adopted son to Joe and came with him to Oak Ridge. Joe gets more worried as Ralph becomes involved with a group protesting the poor treatment of African-Americans at Oak Ridge. While it is true, for example, that their segregated housing is just shacks that are freezing in the winter, Joe worries for Ralph's safety.

Each character's story is told in alternating chapters, though the three main characters cross paths (more and more significantly as the novel continues). The book begins with June's arrival at Oak Ridge in November 1944, when the hastily-built town is still fairly new. Each character's individual story is interesting, and the links between them become more and more intriguing until the climax. The larger account of the war and the building of the atomic bomb is told through the more intimate thoughts, actions, and discussions of the characters. I was thoroughly engrossed in the audiobook, set in such a fascinating place during that pivotal moment in history. It's a point of view that is not often heard, from the people, most of whom had no idea what the place was for, needed to keep Oak Ridge running (and the same goes for Los Alamos, NM), and I found it compelling. Although I enjoyed the audiobook, I see that the print book includes real photos of Oak Ridge and its employees (check out the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon), so it might be worthwhile to see the book in print, too. While I enjoyed this fictional perspective and learned a lot, for those who want to know more, a nonfiction book on the subject was written a few years earlier: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.

384 pages, William Morrow Paperbacks

Listen to a sampleof the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.

You can purchase The Atomic City Girls from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order The Atomic City Girls from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I asked for the ARC of this book but was turned down. I still want to read it. Thanks!

  2. I also felt like I was seeing a part of the war that I hadn't heard about before, so I found that super interesting.

    1. Yes, something quite different from most WWII novels!