The Atomic City Girls
by Janet Beard
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 353 Pages
Release date: February 6, 2018
In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II
“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”
In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.
The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.
When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.
I adore historical fiction and WWII is definitely my go-to time period when it comes to this genre. Reading the blurb, I had high hopes for Atomic City Girls, but rereading it now after finishing the book really brings into focus how much of a false impression of the book it gives.
First and foremost, the romance storyline felt like it took up more of the novel than was justified. All of the major characters are working on developing a nuclear bomb. Some of them know what they’re working to develop and some of them do not. The political and moral implications of their work and the fact that some of them have been roped into working on it essentially blind felt like something that warranted more development and focus than an unhealthy romance that starts with a 30-year-old scientist taking home a drunk 18-year-old girl. (Yeah, that happens.)
Don’t get me wrong; June’s relationship with Sam Cantor isn’t overly romanticized, and I did appreciate that the morally dodgy nature of their relationship wasn’t sugarcoated. I do have a few feelings about the fact that the only Jewish character in this WWII historical fiction novel is an alcoholic man who takes advantage of a younger girl, though. (I’m not saying that this was necessarily done with any intent, but I do wonder if it ever occurred to the author that, given the rampant antisemitism of the era, making the only Jewish character kind of an awful person might not be a value-free narrative choice.)
The book was trying to do a lot; themes about the moral implications of their work (while underdeveloped, in my opinion) were present, and multiple POV characters allow us to explore the story from varying levels of privilege. (Race, gender, age, and level of education all come into play.) Most of the characters felt underdeveloped, however, and that really hindered the author’s ability to explore this in any real depth. Joe Brewer (the African American man mentioned in the blurb whose fate is going to be “intertwined with” June’s) in particular felt like a missed opportunity. First of all, his relevance to June’s storyline feels severely overstated in the blurb. But beyond that, feels very one-dimensional. It would have been interesting to have a bit more depth to a character who is treated like a second class citizen in a country he’s working to serve.
The pacing also felt a tad slow to me, and the writing style was pretty simple. Not once while reading did any particular passage or quote jump out to me as memorable.
Overall, I feel like I liked the idea of this novel a lot more than the novel itself. The subject matter was really ripe for exploring complex moral themes, but Beard uses cardboard cutout characters and the more interesting aspects of the plot are relegated to the background while Beard tells a story of a doomed romance and a rivalry between roommates. Atomic City Girls brings up a lot of interesting themes, but only ever superficially and fleetingly, leaving the reader thinking, “Okay, and???”
Thank you for reading! Have you read this novel? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments! What’s your favorite novel that takes place during WWII? Let’s discuss!