"The Atomic City Girls" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
In ‘The Atomic City Girls,” author Janet Beard depicts the lives of four people at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the secret manufacturing locale for the Manhattan Project, during World War II. At that time this hastily created city of 30,000 was home to a uranium enrichment plant and a liquid thermal diffusion plant necessary for the development of the atomic bomb.
June Walker is the primary narrator of the story. She is an 18-year-old woman from Maryville, a small rural Tennessee town, who leaves her simple upbringing and proscribed life to become a factory worker in Oak Ridge. Her job is to turn dials on equipment whose purpose is unknown to her.
Surrounded by signs with slogans like “What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here,” June and the many women she works with are instructed to not tell anyone about the project at Oak Ridge because their work is top secret; breaches are not tolerated.
CiCi, June’s roommate and coworker, is from the big city of Nashville. CiCi is a tall, beautiful social climber who enjoys good times at Oak Ridge parties and is determined to walk off with a wealthy fiancé. She hangs around the canteen late at night and often does not come home until the next morning.
Doctor Sam Cantor is a nuclear physicist employed to develop a process for extracting Uranium 235 from regular uranium. The enriched uranium is then sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project. Sam's family had emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the 1920s. The Cantors are Jews who have lost contact with any German relatives whom they assume have all died in concentration camps. Sam is troubled by the moral and ethical consequences of dropping an atomic bomb on civilians.
The fourth protagonist is Joe Brewer, an African American construction worker who puts up with prejudice and injustice because he is making more money than he ever has. He lives in segregated housing and misses his family deeply, hoping his wife can get a job at Oak Ridge so the family can be reunited. White workers can bring their families to the clandestine site, but blacks can only do so if both husband and wife work there.
Beard’s intriguing plot dramatizes how the lives of these four characters with different outlooks and dreams intertwine. It is a compelling story about people who find themselves working on a weapon that will eventually destroy two cities, kill more than two hundred thousand civilians, and embroil the whole world in a nuclear arms race.
Numerous photos of Oak Ridge add visual interest and authenticity to the well-researched book. Fans of historical fiction will appreciate this complex and human look at the people involved in the covert race to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans.