Denise Kiernan takes us back to the 1940’s, to a small town in Tennessee that was purposefully left off all maps. There, the federal government was recruiting men and women to create fuel for a closely-guarded secret, what eventually became the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Women were recruited away from their homes and families with promises of well-paying jobs, to a whole new life where they worked grueling hours as janitors, chemists, nurses, and quality control inspectors, all under the strictest of secrecy. Each of them worked on a tiny piece of an enormous puzzle, none of them knowing what exactly they were working towards. Amidst this backdrop of hard work, watchful eyes, and cramped living conditions, these women toiled away, not knowing how they were contributing to the war effort in this remote part of the country.
The book was meticulously researched and Kiernan paints vivid pictures of the women, their jobs, and life in Oak Ridge, TN. No aspect is too small, so Kiernan covers the living conditions, food, and social lives of all the Oak Ridge inhabitants, as well as the issues of racism, sexism, and mental health that existed in the town. Although the book is thorough, I had some issues with how the tale was told. First, rather than a journalistic approach, this book reads more like a work of fiction, with the author diving into the inner thoughts and feelings of these women. That style gave me the false impression that the women described in this book were fictional, which they were not. Secondly, the women’s stories are woven throughout the book, piece by piece. Readers get stand alone snapshots of each subject, which makes it rather hard to follow and appreciate each woman’s whole story. My only other problem was that the author tends to use a lot of “filler” by detailing other aspects of the road to the atomic bomb, information that had little to do with the women the author was profiling.
While most have heard of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, few have heard of Oak Ridge (and even fewer of the women of Oak Ridge), and Kiernan does an excellent job revealing the stories of those who played small but integral roles, enriching the uranium that fueled the bombs. Despite some unevenness in the writing, the book is full of information and really illuminates a lesser-known part of American history.
Amazon link for the book is here.