“The Atomic City Girls” by Janet Beard is fiction. But the author grew up near Oak Ridge in Eastern Tennessee and as a child learned about the facility and its part in creating the atom bomb. With this novel, she manages to share the lives of those who worked there from respected scientist to lowly laborer.
The characters she brings to life include June Walker, an eighteen-year-old girl from Eastern Tennessee whose first connection to Oak Ridge is when the government evicts her grandfather from his land, buys it at a reduced rate, and gives those being evicted only two weeks to leave with all their belongings. June then goes to work at Oak Ridge as one of many young girls whose job it is to move dials on a machine for which they have no idea about the function or purpose.
Sam Cantor, a Jewish physicist from Brooklyn, also ends up at Oak Ridge, and through a series of chance meetings, falls in love with June. Joe Brewer represents the many African-Americans who worked at Oak Ridge as menial labor. At one point in the book, one of the African-Americans working for change at Oak Ridge in its treatment of blacks says that Oak Ridge created the first planned slum. Unlike white couples, married African-Americans could not live together. The men lived in huts made of plywood which were mud-filled and freezing in winter, inhumane in summer. Built on low swampy land, in the summer with the windows open for air, the lack of screens made it impossible to avoid mosquitoes.
The book is filled with actual photos of Oak Ridge, and the “White Only” signs are visible in several. Beard tells the story of the years that Oak Ridge was being built from the point of view of those living there, and often the images are reflections of the segregation and prejudice that existed elsewhere in the South.
Each character’s story is compelling and believable, and the story as a whole — the tale of one of the places where the atom bomb was made — is enthralling.
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.