Once upon a time in 1942, it was entirely possible for the United States government to build an entire secret town, eventually populated by 75,000 people, that used, at some point, more electricity than NYC.
That is the premise and a major theme of Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City. The book chronicles the everyday lives of a smattering of characters, all of whom lived and worked in a secret city during the height of WWII.
Girls of Atomic City takes place in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a scratch-made town built by the government to process uranium for the Manhattan Project. Young workers, many of them women, migrated to the town under the pretense of fair wage and war-ending efforts. While the government technically did deliver on both of these promises, the population of Oak Ridge did not, however, know the exact nature of this war-ending effort. It wasn’t until the news of Hiroshima that the town of Oak Ridge learned its true function.
The book also takes a unique approach on the role of women in developing the world’s first atomic bomb to be used in combat. Since many of these women were manufacturing and factory workers and not scientists, it was easy for history to miss their story. And especially so since discussing that work was an issue of national security.
Oak Ridge did not exist on a map. The population was not allowed to speak about, or even speculate on, the nature of their work. There were codenames. And there were, obviously, no cell phones at the time. It was a real “secret” city.
Kiernan’s narrative nonfiction style reads with the same intensity and surrealism as many fictional sci-fi genres. The reader is challenged with the impossibility of reconciling its contemporary perspective on information sharing and the reality of the story. Written in an alternating third person and essay cycle, Kiernan’s characters are rich in background and in story.
The strange town of Oak Ridge was populated almost entirely of young people, many of them recent high school or college graduates. One of Girls of Atomic City’s greater achievements is demonstrating the tenacity of social systems in strange or extraordinary circumstances.
In addition to the 24 hour factories, Oak Ridge was a thriving social scene. The strange town came complete with dance halls, tennis courts and bowling alleys–and as a result, the numerous young people of the town did normal things like go on dates and get married.
Kiernan illuminates over and over again the impossibility of a town like Oak Ridge in modern society and that idea becomes a major foil in the book’s conclusion. The last few chapters of the book recounts when the town of Oak Ridge discovers its purpose, demonstrating the reality of just how fast sensational information can be passed along without the crutch of technology.
In an age of disruption and hyper documentation, Girls of Atomic City provides readers with a unique sense of surrealism and impossibility, a welcome addition to the nonfiction world.