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The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

BOTTOM LINE: Skip it and read the nonfiction version with practically the same name.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 6 February 2018
Source: Publisher

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.”

My Thoughts: To say that The Atomic City Girls is disappointing is to mildly understand the sentiment. I had high hopes of an intimate glimpse into life in Oak Ridge with its layers of secrets. I thought it would be another war novel that is both educational and entertaining. Unfortunately, it is neither of those things, in my opinion, which only compounds my longing for what could have been instead of what is.

For the amount of time we see June and her girlfriends actually working, the story could literally take place anywhere. Seriously, we see June at her station doing mysterious things for all of a page or two. That is all that ties June to the Manhattan Project. She shows curiosity but only after she meets and begins to date the physicist. Even then, we do not get specifics on what these so-called Atomic City girls were actually doing for the project. To me, it makes the title feel like a misnomer in a way because we don’t get to see what they are doing to help win the war.

Instead, Ms. Beard chooses to focus on what happens when the girls do not work. There is a lot of flirting, more dancing, shopping, going to movies, and really living the high life. In a way, it is a bit disturbing just how much June enjoys her life in Oak Ridge and the luxuries to which she has access while the rest of the country is on strict rationing. Cici, the roommate, proves to be a money-grubbing socialite wannabe who is willing to do just about whatever it takes to find herself a wealthy husband. She is the cold-hearted bitch to Jane’s country girl wholesomeness, and both are more than a little sickening in their self-righteousness.

Because focusing on the girls’ social life is not enough apparently, Ms. Beard also throws in the addition of Joe Brewer. If I were a cynical person – and I am – I would surmise that Joe appears in the book in an effort to diversify it and so she can show that while the girls were living large, the African-American workers were stuck in little more than cardboard shanties with fewer available amenities and much more difficult labor. He provides an opportunity to show the racial divide in Tennessee in the 1940s, which is neither a surprise nor shocking in its ugliness. While there is an attempt to connect all of the characters, the connection is flimsy at best and is a convenient plot device at worst.

The Atomic City Girls is supposed to show the morality issues associated with building the first nuclear weapon and the lengths to which the government was willing to go to not only keep it a secret but also to keep its workers happy so that they would stay on the job and finish the task. The morality though comes across as very black and white. You have those who celebrate the weapon, once it becomes public knowledge, knowing it is the best way to end the war. Then you have those who are so appalled at what they built that they struggle live with the guilt. Ms. Beard shows almost nothing in-between the two opinions, even though you would think that is where most of the workers on the Manhattan Project would fall into that middle gray area.

The whole story comes across as soap operatic, complete with fights over men and women backstabbing each other. The connections between all characters remain nebulous no matter how much Ms. Beard tries to bring them together into a cohesive cast. Any connections make no difference because no of the characters are ones that tug on your emotions. They are all flat, relatively insipid and uninteresting. Worst of all though is the utter lack of information I learned from reading this novel. I wanted to learn what these Atomic City girls did for the project and learned nothing. Instead, I got a doomed, wartime love story crossed with a forced morality tale about the dangers of blindly following orders with an added glimpse at the racial injustices that existed in the day. Were it well-written with compelling characters, it might be easier to overlook the lack of atomic anything in The Atomic City Girls. Instead, I closed the last page knowing this is one I should have DNF’d but was too stubborn to do so.

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