When I picked up this book at our local library, I wasn’t sure if it would keep my interest. Although I enjoy historical fiction and have a special fondness for World War 2 stories, there has been an upsurge in novels from this period of history and sometimes the sheer scope of them causes me to abandon them halfway through (usually not the author’s fault!) However “The Atomic City Girls” kept my interest all the way to the end.
I had no difficulty keeping this dual story-line straight. There is a huge contrast between characters and each has his own background story and personal outlook as the events unfold.
June, a young inexperienced girl (‘just off the farm’) begins her work at Oak Ridge along with several other characters in this well-plotted book. Besides June there is Sam, a Jewish scientist from Brooklyn, Cici, a poor white sharecroppers daughter, and Joe, the construction worker representing the colored workers.
June was a very likable character and we see her grow in many ways, although her choices in making friends are not always wise. With such tedious work and restrictions (no talking about work, no writing home about what you are doing, ever), there is understandably a lot of pressure that needed an outlet and many friendships are forged under less exacting conditions. This novel illustrates not only the intricacies of the experiments and atomic research but the human condition; the consequences of choice and the disparate nature of humanity.
Joe is separated from his family in Alabama but with the tempting salary and a wife and children to provide for, he has no choice but to accept a job with the construction crew. The living conditions were substandard with just the basics; freezing cold shacks in winter, and stifling hot in summer. The meals were nothing to write home about either, and the colored workers also endured segregation (occasionally kicked off buses), and often persecution.
I appreciated the struggle Sam (the brilliant scientist), has with the morality of what his work entails. Sam’s conscience bothers him to the point of indulging too often in alcohol, a problem that will stay with him throughout the book. The question arises; did others (besides the fictional “Sam”), question the ethics of developing a new type of bomb that ultimately became the most destructive in human history? If so, what about those working in factories making tanks, anti-aircraft guns, machine rifles, etc? The list could go on and on. At some point man must wrestle with the ramifications of choice. When a nation goes to war, in order to win against an evil regime, is it any less moral to work on weapons that will ensure the success of a nation?
This book was eye-opening for me! I never realized the intensity, regulations, and production that went into the top-secret atomic bomb. The author does a good job of creating characters with real-life struggles, motivations, frailties and flaws. Mixed with the sobering reality of the work involved, this made for a compelling story that kept my interest and provoked intriguing questions; among them the difficulty and the morality of wartime discoveries. There are several photos included in the novel from the Department of Energy, and when we find that the author’s relatives worked in Oak Ridge and Knoxville, we realize that events like these were true to life.