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The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
by Denise Kiernan

Published: 2014-03-11
Paperback : 416 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 9 of 9 members
The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly ...
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The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” —Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not appear on any map. Thousands of civilians, many of them young women from small towns across the U.S., were recruited to this secret city, enticed by the promise of solid wages and war-ending work. What were they actually doing there? Very few knew. The purpose of this mysterious government project was kept a secret from the outside world and from the majority of the residents themselves. Some wondered why, despite the constant work and round-the-clock activity in this makeshift town, did no tangible product of any kind ever seem to leave its guarded gates? The women who kept this town running would find out at the end of the war, when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed and changed the world forever.

Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. “A phenomenal story,” and Publishers Weekly called it an “intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history.”

“Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city...Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.” —The Washington Post

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Discussion Questions

1) Denise Kiernan explains in an author's note, "The information in this book compartmentalized as was much of life ad work during the Manhattan Project" (page xxi) How does the book manage to re -create the workers' experience of months-longs ignorance, and the shock of finding out what they were working on?

2) Consider the disruption of lives and the losses of land and community that resulted form the Manhattan Project. What were some of the sacrifices that families and individuals made in their efforts to end the war? How do these losses compare to the gains of salary, solidarity, and peace? Do you think the ends of the Project justify the means? Why or why not?

3) Discussed the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices - including being kept in the dark about their jobs, development overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship - that families of that era made? Why or why not?

4) Consider the African-American experience at Oak Ridge. What kinds of discrimination did Kattie and her family face? How did Kattie manage to make the best of her substandard living conditions? What role do you think race played in the medical experimentation of Ebbe Cade?

5) Helen was recruited to spy on her neighbors at home and at work. Discuss the ethical implications of the request. Was it fair, necessary, or wise to ask ordinary workers to spy? Are some things acceptable during wartime that wouldn't be otherwise? Why do you think Helen never mailed any of the top-secret envelopes she was given?

6) Although the Clinton Engineer Works turned out to be, in many ways, a social experiment as well as a defense operation, the military didn't account for women's impact on the community: "a sense of permanence. Social connectivity. Home." (page 97). Consider the various ways that women of Oak Ridge tried to make themselves at home. Which of their efforts succeeded, and which failed? Why were some women so successful at making Oak Ridge home while others were depressed and looked forward to leaving?

7) Consider the legacy of President Truman, who made the decision to use atomic weaponry for the first time. How do Americans seem to regard Truman's decision today? How does Truman's legacy compare to other wartime presidents, such as George W. Bush or Lyndon B. Johnson?

8) "The most ambitious war project in military history rested squarely on the shoulders of tens of thousands of ordinary people, many of them young women" (page 108). Compare how The Girls of Atomic City contrasts "ordinary people" to the extraordinary leaders behinds the atomic bomb: the General, the Scientist, and the Engineer. Are the decision makers portrayed as fully as the workers? Do the workers get as much credit as the leaders?

9) Kiernan sets The Girls of Atomic City entirely in the past, re-creating the workers' experiences form her interviews with the surviving women. How would this book have differed if the interviews from the present day were included? Does Kiernan succeed in immersing us in the era of World War II? Explain your answer.

10) Among the workers at Oak Ridge, whose story did you find most fascinating? Which of these women do you think Kiernan brought to life most vividly, and how?

11) Discuss the scenes in the book that take place far from Oak Ridge, Tennessee: scientific discoveries in Europe, secret tests in New Mexico, political meetings in Washington, and post -atomic devastation in Japan. How does this broad view of the bomb's creation and aftermath enrich the story of wartime life in Oak Ridge?

12) Discuss how various contributors to the Manhattan Project felt about the use of the atomic bomb, including General Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and Harry S. Truman. What regrets did they express about the bomb's results, if any. Do you think a weapon of the magnitude could or should be used in present-day warfare? Why or why not?

13) Kiernan writes, "The challenge in telling the story of the atomic bomb is one of nuance, requiring thought and sensitivity and walking line between commemoration and celebration" (page 313). What lasting contributions to society have come out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee? Why is it challenging to celebrate or commemorate the work that has been done in that secret city?

Suggested by Members

Discuss other locations where women worked to support the war effort
by Wmdeedee (see profile) 11/12/15

Oak Ridge TN Manhatten Project https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0idve4d-4B0
Oak Ridge TN today https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sITVuDS6nc
by ncvlib (see profile) 03/13/15

If you were working at Oak Ridge, which job would you want to do?
by bspourch (see profile) 02/24/15

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

“A phenomenal story.”

—Jon Stewart

“Fascinating ... Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research. ... Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets."

—Washington Post

“This review can’t begin to do justice to the story contained in The Girls of Atomic City. I’m grateful to Denise Kiernan for her research, her journalism and people skills, her stick-to-itiveness- all that she brought to this work of narrative nonfiction to give readers a larger picture than, I believe, has been available to the general audience before…it has taken an astute woman writer to the tell the story in a whole new way.”

—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Kiernan’s accounts ring with authenticity…The Girls of Atomic City is fascinating.”

—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan tells the fascinating story about ordinary women who did the extraordinary…The girls of Atomic City helped to change history; it’s high time their story was told.”


“While telling a fascinating story, Kiernan also captures the complexity of the consequences of the work that the women did. Her multifaceted account sets the experience of each woman within a larger picture and raises larger questions about work and society.”

—Columbus Dispatch

“Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge.”

—The Daily Beast

“Kiernan…brings a unique and personal perspective to this key part of American history…Instead of the words of top scientists and government officials, Kiernan recounts the experiences of factory workers, secretaries, and low-level chemists…She combines their stories with detailed reporting that provides a clear and compelling picture of this fascinating time.”

—Boston Globe

“Kiernan’s book, the result of seven years of research and interviews with the surviving “girls,” sparkles with their bright, WWII slang and spirit…The Girls of Atomic City brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science.”

—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It’s told in a novelistic style and is an intimate look at the experience of the young women…The result is a compelling retelling of the lives of the “girls of Atomic City.”

—San Francisco/Sacramento Book Review

“Some of [women’s] vital contributions now come to light in an engaging and lively new work…The Girls of Atomic City immediately seizes your attention and causes you to re-examine everything you thought you knew about the Manhattan project, the atomic bomb and the indispensable role women played in World War II.”

—San Antonio Express-News

“Kiernan uses research, interviews, maps and photos to craft what is probably the best account of the Secret City yet written.”

—Baton Rouge Advocate

“Kiernan’s writing is clear, fast-paced and easily understood…If all history books read like novels, which Atomic City does, we’d have a nation of history scholars.”

—Omaha World-Herald

“The Girls of Atomic City is an expose and a fascinating story of a secret town…Kiernan gently raises questions that continue to haunt us today.”

—Knoxville News Sentinel

“This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience.”

—Publishers Weekly

“The Girls of Atomic City details a story that seems impossible yet was true. Author Denise Kiernan brings a novelist’s voice to her thoroughly researched look at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”

—Book Page

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Member Reviews

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by Dorothy B. (see profile) 05/10/19

by Lauren B. (see profile) 02/18/19

by Kris M. (see profile) 01/07/19

by gena f. (see profile) 11/13/18

by Sarah T. (see profile) 12/18/17

  "The Girls of Atomic City"by Nancy M. (see profile) 08/25/17

This book was just so-so for me. The author introduced us to too many characters and never really develops any of them for the reader to care about! The topic is an interesting piece of history, and... (read more)

by Kim A. (see profile) 06/15/17

by Linda M. (see profile) 04/28/17

  "The GIrls of Atomic City"by Loraine S. (see profile) 02/08/17

Fascinating story & a great book discussion. The author's website provides a lot of additional information, photos & videos.

by Patti R. (see profile) 01/10/17

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