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Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

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

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

I've been in a WWII frame of mind lately and I had ordered this book a few months ago, so I snagged it from my Jenga-like TBR pile and cracked it open over the weekend.


I'm not a feminist by almost anybody's definition, but I've always been eager to read more about how women picked up and carried on when most of the country's men shipped off to fight.  I grew up hearing stories about war time from my mother and she tended to put a glamorous spin on things.  This book did nothing to dispel that aura of glamor, although it does introduce a vast quantity of mud (mud has a big role in this book).  Also, and I can't say exactly why, but I didn't feel at all like I was reading a book specifically about women and their roles in the war.  It felt much more like a book about a historical period/event that just happened to have a whole lot of women in it.


The book chronicles the creation, from farmland to city, of Oak Ridge, Tennessee - the city that didn't exist.  Built for only one purpose - to enrich uranium for the development and production of the world's first atomic bombs.  The author doesn't pull punches; the government of the time comes out looking more bumbling than heroic a good deal of the time, even while succeeding.  But it is a fascinating look at how one country pulled together tens of thousands of people scattered in various locations, each working towards one goal - a goal they knew nothing about.  If nothing else it's probably history's best display of successful compartmentalism and what a strong sense of patriotism can accomplish.


I enjoy a narrative voice when reading history, and I really looked forward to hearing the stories these women had to tell.  But the author could have done a much better job weaving everything into a cohesive whole.  She alternates between what is happening at Oak Ridge and a history of the development of nuclear fission - but the times are completely off.  The reader will be reading about Oak Ridge in 1943, for example, and then finds themselves suddenly thrust into a narrative of the discovery of atom division in the 1930's.  For me, this really ruined the flow.  It might have perhaps made for a more graceful read to write about the development of nuclear fission up to the point of Oak Ridge's creation in a prologue, then interleave the development of fission/atomic weapons with the development of Oak Ridge in tandem.


The other thing I found jarring was the way she sometimes skipped from woman to woman at odd places.  This might have been exacerbated by my struggles to keep each woman straight in my head (luckily the author had a "cast of characters" section at the very beginning of the book which helped a lot).  An example that comes readily to mind is a section towards the end of the book.  The author leaves off the story of one woman while she is at the top of the Empire State building.  She then goes on with other stories for so long that when she returns to her, I've completely forgotten she's the one on top of the Empire State building.  It felt a bit like it was originally all one continuous flow of text, and at some point a whole other section was inserted in the middle.  This happens a couple of times throughout the book and it ended up feeling jarring and jerky instead of a smooth read.


One last thing that stuck out like a sore thumb, was the story of a black man involved in a car accident who was subsequently used in a plutonium experiment without his knowledge.  The author makes it clear that the actual facts are scarce, but the way it was inserted into the book felt like an afterthought or as though it was shoe-horned in.  This was a Really Big Deal and I felt like it wasn't done well at all.  It probably should have either had it's own section in the book, or been left out entirely.

(show spoiler)


Those things aside, it was an interesting read and I found myself invested in the women about whom the author wrote.  I think the author had a lot of information to work with, a lot of facts that felt important and not enough space to expound upon them.  While not my favourite non-fiction read this year, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in history, women's history, or WWII.