Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

I picked up this book quite by accident; was browsing through Goodreads and came across this title. The book highlights the role women played in helping to end World War II; it is a story of a township set up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA, where the workers did not know the true nature of their tasks till the end of the war. The name of the book is a giveaway and I would not want to include any spoilers in this review.

The premise of the book is quite interesting; while most men were away at war (World War II), the book brings forth the untold story of the women – most of them working as chemists, laboratory assistants, administration executives, secretaries, etc. who played quite an important role. These women were recruited from all across USA, made to work in a new town which was supposed to be a temporary arrangement but which ended up becoming permanent, and basically sworn to secrecy about the work they were doing there.

Most of these women were quite young and fresh out of college who were quite excited at this prospect since the pay was good and they were hoping that the war would end since most of them had family members aware at war. This motivation was quite essential for them since the living conditions at Oak Ridge were not exactly ideal. They still made the best of their situation and many of them went to marry on their colleagues and settled down with their families there.

The author Denise Kiernan has done a lot of research for writing this book, including interviews with some of the women, who are in their 80s and 90s currently, who worked on the project. She is able to bring out the detailed lives of the women at Oak Ridge, including their work schedules, their homes, their socializing and the lack of avenues for doing that, the tribulations that they had to undergo owing to the secrecy, etc. It is quite shocking to read some of the things that we take for granted at our workplace – exchanging gossip about work, for instance – was absolutely not an option for these women. They could also never know whether or not to trust somebody for they never knew what would get reported back to the authorities.

The book also intersperses the chemical details of the project in between the personal lives of the women including the contribution of German scientists, primary of who were women as well. This was a real eye-opener for me to read about how the women’s role was sidelined and the men took the credit for all of it.

Some parts of the book do feel like repetition which could have been avoided by better editing. And there are some grammatical errors as well. However, all in all, I enjoyed reading the book and going behind the scenes of that one huge, secretive project that changed the world, as it existed before then, forever.

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