The Atomic City Girls

Written by Janet Beard
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Between 1942 and 1945, nearly 100,000 people worked at a secret site in East Tennessee, making enriched uranium for the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever one’s position on nuclear arms, the enterprise, secret even to most of those who worked on it, was a monumental scientific and engineering accomplishment. This novel follows three “Atomic City” employees: June, a young farm girl who comes to know too much; Sam, a troubled physicist and June’s lover; and Joe, an African-American construction worker facing the systemic racism of the times. The center of the novel is June’s coming of age, confronting an increasingly unstable relationship and wrestling with the moral dilemma of creating a weapon of horrifying power.

Readers feel the oppressive secrecy of the project—workers were told to say they were making “holes for donuts”—as well as the excitement of being part of an effort to end the war that had already killed many of their loved ones. While some dialogue feels stilted, and the three story lines could be better integrated, the energy of the novel gathers as the first nuclear warhead is dropped on Hiroshima and the truth about the “Atomic City” is finally revealed.