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February 2016: World War II > The Girls of Atomic City - 3 stars

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message 1: by Nicole R (last edited Feb 27, 2016 07:19AM) (new)

Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7758 comments The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
3 stars

This was a hard book for me to rate. I absolutely loved the topic and appreciated that it was a a totally new subject to me that (supposedly) highlighted the role of women in creating the atomic bomb. But, I felt the title was a bit of false advertising and the story was not nearly as compelling as it could have easily been.

After Pearl Harbor, there was an otherworldly confluence of scientific breakthroughs related to atomic fission and collection of scientific geniuses the likes of which the world may never see again. They had the theoretical key to ending the war: an atomic bomb. But, the practical constraints of purifying and collecting vast quantities of the rare element posed a problem. A problem that President Roosevelt and the U.S. Army tackled full on.

A triumvirate of top-secret scientific sites popped up across the U.S.: Manhattan, headquarters of the think tank; New Mexico, testing grounds for the future bomb; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, expansive industrial site to make the most important component of the bomb.

There was a slight problem: The Army needed vast tracks of land, construction of the largest buildings in the world, and over 75,000 people to live in utmost secrecy to work in the production facilities. Thousands upon thousands of people relocated to Oak Ridge, moved into modular housing, and worked 12+ hours a day doing a single, narrow task without asking others about the big picture or talking about their jobs. This could have only occurred pre-Twitter.

Without a doubt, Oak Ridge was a miracle mission, and I am not just talking about the billions of dollars hidden in congressional appropriations bills. This make-shift settlement became a home to many people and housed the world's biggest secret in plain site. The workers did important work and brought a swift, though now controversial, end to what could have been years more of fighting Japan.

I also liked that the author simultaneously told the story of the scientists and events leading up to the need for Oak Ridge. I am in awe of those scientists who did something so ground-breaking, so history-altering that they will live on forever in infamy. And, I am not just talking about their contributions leading to the building of the bomb; nuclear fission changed the face of what we thought we knew of chemistry and physics and while fission can be used for bad, it can -- and has been -- used for so much good.

And, I appreciated all of those descriptions in the book, I enjoyed reading about the women, but there was nothing special about them in this book. Yes, the author mentioned several times that the largest portion of this new workforce were female, but I didn't feel like she was invested in that premise. It was more like she happened to pick women to interview out of convenience and then decided to capitalize on it.

But, the most glaring misstep to me was that the stories of the women were not compelling. I realize that after having read books like Unbroken, Boys in the Boat, and In the Kingdom of Ice that I have extremely high expectations of my situational nonfiction (I just made that term up), but the women were not distinctly described, I did not find myself particularly caring what happened to them, and I was not overly intrigued. It lacked personal details of their stories, which should have been readily available because these women were all interviewed in person by the author.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book; I appreciated learning something new and it was not poorly written. But, it seems like a missed opportunity to write something more outstanding.


message 2: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6437 comments Great review, Nicole. I like that you coined a new term, lol. But I know exactly what you mean by it. I think of it as narrative nonfiction . . .but not sure that's a real term either.

Those books that really bring a piece of history to life seem so few and far between to me that I figure they must be very difficult to actually write. Sounds like this book had the potential, but missed the mark a bit.


message 3: by Regina Lindsey (new)

Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments I'm glad you read it. On the science topic I felt the same but also was struck by where we would've been had so many scientists left Germany


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