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Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

If you are looking for a quick March Break read for a day on a plane, or on the beach – or maybe even on the couch – The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard is just the book.

A work of fiction, based on real events, complete with archival photographs, The Atomic City Girls tells the story of the people who worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a top secret town and work place built and operated by the American Government during the Second World War.

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The local girls and women who were hired to work, and live, there had no idea of exactly what work they were performing – or for what purpose. They spent days at machines carefully making adjustments, in top-secret surroundings. The work provided much needed employment, an opportunity to leave home and, of course, the chance to meet a potential husband, and a way out of rural Tennessee. We know, before they do, that they were, in fact, making enriched uranium.

We meet June Walker and her family, in the fall of 1942, as their land is being expropriated by the government for some top-secret purpose, and again later in the fall of 1944 when June arrives to work at Oak City.

Moving into a girls dormitory June becomes friends with Cicci Roberts. Cicci is very actively looking for a husband – a wealthy one. June is an innocent compared to Cicci, but with a little prompting and primping she is soon more comfortable, and enjoying time at the canteen and the dances. June is bored by the work she does but happy to be away from home.

In tandem with the story of the white workers in Oak City, is the story of the black workers. These are men doing manual labour and living in crowded conditions. They are lonely, having left their families for the work in Oak City, but they are happy for the pay cheque. It is only when some of the black men begin to demand better living conditions that there is a chance that things will change.

The other players in the story are the Military Officers who live with their families in purpose built new homes, and the scientists who come to work on what will become the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. One of the physicists working at Oak Ridge is Sam Cantor, a rather unhappy man several years older than June. But, there is an attraction and they soon become involved in an intense relationship that surprises both of them. The affair also leads to a much better job for June, one that brings an awareness of what the work in Oak Ridge really means.

Janet Beard grew up in the shadow of Oak Ridge, and while researching this book, discovered that her own grandmother worked for the Manhattan project in Knoxville, and a Great Aunt worked at Oak Ridge.

The Atomic City Girls is a bit of a fluffy love story, but it is also a fascinating picture of a unique time and place and a very good read!

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