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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: The Girls of Atomic City

On Monday, we met to discuss The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.

From the publisher:
The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in US history. 
At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians—many of them young women from small towns across the South—were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work. Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war—when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed. 
Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it—women who are now in their eighties and nineties—The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country’s history.
Before I get to the specifics of our discussion however, I need to shout this from the Book Discussion Leader rooftops...READ THIS BOOK WITH YOUR GROUP!  I don't care if you think you have read too many WWII books already, this is like nothing you have read before.

On to the discussion:
  • We had 13 likes and 3 so-sos with zero dislikes.
  • So-so comments:
    • It was too verbose; there was so much information. 
    • The way it was told bothered me because it was not chronological [Becky noted that author did it this way on purpose and lays out her organizational choices at the start of the work. This is an issue we returned to later]. 
    • I wanted more about the women and less about the science, even though the science did help me understand it all better.
  • Liked comments:
    • I loved learning about women in the scientific community at that time
    • I loved the style! I felt like it captured the innocence of the time and the secrecy.  She kept the story compartmentalized just as the workers were. You only knew what you needed to know and not a bit more.
  • Discussion topic-- Let's talk about the era a bit more
    • These people were only 1 step away from the depression.  A good paying job was a good paying job.  Not knowing what you were doing or why and having to keep it all secret from everyone around you (even though you worked in the same place) was worth it.
    • One of our group members worked for the FBI during WWII (this has come up before in book club). She was a secretary with high security clearance just like Celia in the book.  She confirmed that she knew there was a huge facility/town in Oak Ridge, TN but she did not know what they were doing until after the Atomic Bomb was dropped.  But she did confirm how strict the "loose lips sink ships" rules were.
    • This was not a generation of complainers-- this statement is brought up by Kiernan multiple times in the book.  These women put up with the mud and the rules and the secrecy because they had to.
    • I was struck by the different levels of sacrifice people in this book were forced to make.  Some had to give up their land for the construction of the plants, some moved hundreds of miles from home without more than a vague promise of work and housing.
    • They didn't need to know what or why, they just wanted to do their part to end the war however they could help.
  • This line of questioning led me to ask about the level of trust everyone had in the US government. Would this work now in our era of distrust?
    • Kiernan captured the unadulterated trust that the American people had in the government. We will never get that back.  It is a time lost to history.
    • Reading this book, I was struck by all of the secrecy and censorship that was required in order to create the bomb. It kinda made me feel icky. But it did seem necessary as we see in the final results. The Russians got the bomb too because of spies.
    • This led us to a talk about Edward Snowden and the line between leaking so people know what is actually happening and national security.  We talked about that for awhile.  We all felt like we understood the complexity of the Snowden current events because of reading this book.
    • So then are we safer now because we know everything? Or are we less safe because our enemies know all our secrets too?  We had a nice discussion of this but came to no definitive answer. Overall we think knowing more and having fewer secrets is probably better in the long run.  
    • Knowing more has helped stop the bomb from being used again.  
  • The references to medical experiments being done on the side due to everyone’s unwilling exposure to radiation.
    • We loved the line that one of the “girls” thought whatever they were doing in Oak Ridge must have to do with urine because all she did was collect urine samples.
    • What about the men who went across the country from TV to Los Alamos handcuffed to boxes of “tube alloy?” They did not know what they were carrying.
    • The worst is the story of the patient who breaks his leg and they wait 20 days to set it so they could shoot him full or uranium to see what happens! Awful.
    • Nazi’s did this kind of stuff too, but on a larger scale, someone said.  We did it too. 
  • Because I had to ask it-- Does the ends justify the means here?
    • These people were all working to build the atomic bomb to end the war.  They didn’t know that’s what they were doing until after it was used. The use of the bomb and the ethics of it is a sensitive issue still, with no clear right or wrong answer.
    • Also, we have the hindsight problem.  The whole time we are reading the book, we know what is coming, so we are analyzing if it was all worth it from page 1.
    • In the end, we all agreed that yes, the ends probably did justify the means.  The Japanese Emperor was not going to surrender.  
    • Some of us were more willing to say yes, others were more hesitant.
    • We probably could have done some more tests so that we could have known how bad the “fall out” was going to be.  But then someone else said, we saw that there was not enough tube alloy for the “gadget” to do many tests.
    • One lady said that she had read her dad’s letters home from the European front and he was saying that he was being sent to Japan next. She’s glad he didn’t have to go.
  • We started looking at how Kiernan wrote the book.  We did this from a few different angles. First, how she handled all of the complicated science.
    • Some wished there did not have to be any science and they skimmed these chapters.
    • Most loved how Kiernan but the important scientific information into short chapters with a different font.  We got just enough to understand what was going on. It also gave us scientific and historical context.
    • Without any science, the book, and our understanding of the immense task ahead of the government, would have been less successful.
  • Second we talked about how she chose the women to follow.
    • We liked how she picked women who were there from early in the project and that she chose a woman from every walk of like that Oak Ridge had.  Black and white, high school grads, secretaries, nurse, female scientists.
    • Through this range of women, many of the social issues were revealed-- things like segregation and discrimination against women.
    • We got the full picture of life.
    • Focusing on the women and their varied jobs also showed how compartmentalized life was in Oak Ridge.  It showed how very little they each knew what the others were doing, and even what they themselves were doing.
    • The jumping around throughout the chapters was disorienting at times, but we decided, that was the point.  Kiernan was trying to recreate just a snippet of what it was like to live in this crazy, secret filled world.
  • Third we talked about how the book used current interviews but was told entirely from the perspective of the past.  We enjoyed that.
    • If she did it more in an interview format, looking back, we would get too much hindsight.
    • By placing the entire story in the past, as the women were living it, we are placed there.  You can experience the richness of the setting and the story more.
  • The title.  What use word “Girls” and not women?
    • "I told my sister the title of the book I was reading, and she was mad at the use of the word girls." It is pejorative.
    • But, when you read the book, the word girls is used deliberately.  It is actually key to the amazing story.  These were girls; they were young women, on their own for the first time in their lives.  They were seen in a pejorative way by others as just “girls” too.  Yet together they saved the day!
    • Compare how they were perceived vs what they accomplished.  This is what is so amazing about Oak Ridge. The term girls highlights this dichotomy and adds power to their amazing story.
  • Someone in the group who is a little younger, asked some of the women who were a bit older, “What motivated you to get an education beyond high school if you knew that you might not get a job anyway just because you were a woman, or you would have to quit when you got pregnant?”  The few who answered shared that they did it because they were encouraged by their parents to get an education. They had internal drive to educate themselves for the sake of education.
  • Oak Ridge the town:
    • The inequality of the housing for blacks was upsetting.  Someone read a quote from the era where a newspaper said it was the only town in America to have planned slums.
    • Even when the war ended and the town was one of the first to “desegregate” their schools, they really didn’t.  The school took black and white students, but they were in different classes.
    • The social/psychological issues and implications of forcing all of these people together and making them live in close quarters, working long hours, but never being able to unburden themselves of fear of losing their jobs was crazy.
    • The locked gates, the constant police state, the fear of your friend, spouse or neighbor ratting you out.
    • A great example of how weird the town was: the newspaper couldn’t report anything that happened. Instead they would focus on “future events.”
    • I wish there was more about the psychologist who is only mentioned a few times.  What did all that stress and secrecy do to the people long term?
    • It was an army base that didn’t take the lives of the families and the women into account when they planned it.
    • Women became the backbone of this town.
  • We talked about the overall tone Kiernan strives for here
    • She walks the fine line between history, celebration of these women, and the overall uneasiness we all have with what they were building [again because we know what is coming]
    • This book made me proud of those women despite how I feel about the atomic bomb.
    • We needed this book to remind us of the contributions these people made to the war effort.
    • Yes it is ambiguous, but look at where we are now.  Look how much more we know about science and fission. And look at how much better the world scientific community works together now. Too much secrecy could have harmed scientific discovery in the long run.
    • This book made me feel like cheering, “Rah, Rah, Rah!”
  • Words of phrases to describe this book:
    • proud
    • patriotic
    • atmosphere of fear
    • secret history
    • triumph of science
    • compartmentalization
    • loose lips sink ships
    • mud [there was a lot of mud in the town and it permeated the story, plus it is a great metaphor for the situation in general]
    • making a home
    • sacrifice
Readalikes: Right now the TV show Manhattan is a big hit.  It is all about the race to develop the atomic bomb but like The Girls of Atomic City, it is also about the lives of the people who were part of this huge scientific and historical event. You cannot fully understand the bomb without understanding the people who made it possible.

For another great overview of WWII which includes some of the more forgotten stories and heroes told in their own words, you can watch Ken Burns', The War or read the companion book.

Of course Kiernan lists many great resources in her extensive notes at the end of the book.  As notes sections go, this one is actually quite fun to read.  She also has a website for the book here, with a lot more information, links, pictures, videos, and more.

Up at the top of this post, the publisher mentions The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Worst Hard Time as readalike options.  I agree; in fact, the Henrietta Lacks book came to my mind while I was reading this book and a participant mentioned it during the discussion.  Here is a link to my review of when I read TILoHL.  I did not enjoy that book as much as this one, mostly because I thought the author interjected herself too much into the story.  Kiernan did the exact opposite.  Even though she interviewed many of the women herself, and visited Oak Ridge, she never put herself in the story.  She set it in the past and let the women speak for themselves.

Two other books we have discussed in book club before I think are interesting readalike options, the first came up in the discussion because it was last month’s book-- Remarkable Creatures which was all about the forgotten contributions of female scientists to huge discoveries.  Another is The Zookeeper’s Wife which tells a story of courage from a forgotten moment during WWII.

Suggestions from NoveList that I also thought were worth sharing:
And finally, here is the link for Goodreads readers who like Girls of Atomic City also liked these books.


Donna said...

This is a great post. I want this book NOW.

Becky said...

A member of book club just came in to add another readalike: Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky. It is framed around women physicists from the era.