Stories from a Secret City: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
When she was eight-years old, Janet Beard went on a school trip to a nearby museum in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and remembers being terrified. “That was when I learned about atomic weapons and the history of the ‘Secret City'”, she explains. Although all the world knows about the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1946, far fewer people are familiar with the role played in the building those bombs by the men and women of East Tennessee. Twenty years after that memorable museum visit, Beard embarked on writing a novel set in the ‘Secret City’ in Oak Ridge, a facility which sprang up almost overnight in 1942 and bustled with 80,000 people working on a vast array of jobs to bring the Manhattan Project to fruition. Her own grandmother, she discovered, had done administrative work for the Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge was kept secret, but its scope shaped the lives of everyone in the vicinity.
In the novel that resulted, The Atomic City Girls, Beard tells the story of June Walker, an eighteen-year old girl who leaves home to work in Oak Ridge with thousands of other girls whose job was to operate a calutron machine. ‘Calutron girls’ as they were known, monitored and operated mass spectrometers that separated uranium isotopes to produce the enriched uranium needed to make atomic bombs. June and the other girls have no idea what their work entails, except that it is a vital part of the war effort. That suits June’s roommate Cici, whose main aim at Oak Ridge is to find a wealthy husband, but when June falls for a physicist, Sam Cantor, she learns what so many at Oak Ridge have no idea of: that the government is racing to build an atomic bomb before any of their enemies can manage it.
Although the novel is called The Atomic City Girls, another principal character is not a girl at all, but an African American man, Joe Brewer. Through Joe, Beard is able to introduce another perspective on the period. “Like June,” she explains, “Joe comes to Oak Ridge because of the unique economic opportunity it offers for both women and people of color. However, the costs he faces are much steeper. The Army designed Oak Ridge to adhere to the rules of the Jim Crow South, and Joe suffers the consequences.”
While her characters are fictional and not based on specific individuals, Beard felt her research benefitted greatly from online oral histories collected from people who lived in Oak Ridge during the war. She also referred to the work of Ed Westcott, a photographer hired by the Army to document all aspects of work and life in Oak Ridge. Over forty of these photographs are reproduced in the novel and range from ladies at the hairdressers, to dances, to photographs of facilities, checkpoints, trailer accommodations and cafeterias.
For readers who enjoy The Atomic City Girls and seek to know more about Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project, Beard recommends the following non-fiction titles:
She also recommends The Manhattan Project National Historic Park, which opened in 2015 at a range of locations, including Oak Ridge. The Y12 plant where Beard’s character June works can be visited there – but only by United States citizens.
Beard is now at work on another novel set in East Tennessee, inspired by Appalachian murder ballads.
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of Charlatan, a story of poison and intrigue in 17th-century Paris. Her second historical novel, The Road to Newgate, will be released in summer 2018.