Monday, December 31, 2018

Review of The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (2013, Touchstone)

1942, rural Tennessee. The US government rapidly acquires 56,000 acres of land, giving farmers and families three to six weeks to leave their land and homes. Inside the new Reservation of Oak Ridge ground is broken on building a set of factories and a new town. Within two years the place is home to 75,000 people, three large industrial sites including the world’s largest building, and various collections of dorms, apartments, prefab huts, houses and service buildings; it is somewhat rough and ready with mud everywhere and overcrowded. Everyone there has been vetted and sworn to secrecy, not even able to tell fellow workers or family what they do every day. The penalty for talking is eviction, job loss and finding new work difficult. Very few people even know what they are working on. The site is consuming vast quantities of material and is costing a fortune to build and staff, but nothing seems to be coming out. It is, however, a vital cog in the Manhattan Project, enriching uranium, the key component of the atomic bomb. It is only after the bomb is dropped that workers discover what they had been contributing to and the place is acknowledged as officially existing.

Denise Kiernan tells the story of the atomic city from the perspective of the thousands of women working and living there. In particular, it follows the lives of eight women who all worked at Oak Ridge, performing different jobs – chemist, statistician, nurse, cyclotron operator, secretary, cleaner, etc. – and who were from different places and backgrounds. Through these women she charts the growth and development of the site, the work taking place there, the living conditions, and how the community developed. In many ways, Kiernan illustrates how Oak Ridge was a social experiment as much as it was a massive, rapid industrial development: a kind of instant city but one that had unusual social rules such as strict secrecy, separation of family members (even on site, as between black families where husband and wife were made to sleep in separate compounds bordered by barbwire fences, and children were excluded entirely), internal spies monitoring staff and security checks to get in and out, censuring of mail, etc. To provide wider context, the text is punctuated with a second narrative that charts the development of the Manhattan Project and key events, detailing the notable contributions of women to the wider science, politics and industry. As Kiernan acknowledges, life in Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project was highly compartmentalised, and her history has a similar telling. To some degree this inevitable given the approach taken. Using eight women to tell the story of thousands of women and also the story of Oak Ridge in the development of the atomic bomb is always going to produce a circumscribed and somewhat sketchy view. The payoff though is in the detail of the experience of living and working in the new city. The result is a nicely written, engaging history of Oak Ridge that manages to create a reasonable balance between the wider context and personal stories and which highlights the key roles that women made.

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