Janet Beard comes to the blog today with her new release, an historic fiction in multiple points of view set in the waning years of World War II, as the rush to end the war and develop the atomic bomb under the name Manhattan Project.
The Atomic City Girls
Told in four alternating points of view, the story covers a period of approximately 18 months in the secret town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A government-built community focused on the enrichment of Uranium for use in bombs to be constructed in Los Alamos. Secrecy and isolation were the watchwords of this project, and we get a sense of what ‘may’ have been their thoughts. Cici, an uneducated country girl with a mean streak, determination to marry rich and a determination to run over anyone who dared stand in her way. June, a young girl from the local area, following in her sister’s footsteps, with an insatiable curiosity and enjoyment in all of the worlds being opened to her. Joe, a sharecropper from Alabama who left his wife and children behind with hopes for a better life, more money and opportunity. Lastly Sam, a physicist with promise, recruited for that promise to work in the laboratories. Each person is wholly different with differing levels of self-awareness and the ‘end game’ for the project.
A segregated town that was growing up by leaps and bounds: Joe’s story takes us through the hazards of a black man navigating the discrimination, continuing to work and ignore the many temptations (moonshine, cards, dice) while reining in the anger and determination of some to claim a double victory (victory in Germany, democracy at home) for those who would wait an additional two plus decades. Joe’s story brought the inequities and potential dangers for those who worked tirelessly with sub-par food, housing and opportunity: while building the complex.
Cici was a tangential character: first introducing June to the wonders of Oak Hill – cafeterias, movie theatre, dances, bowling alleys, until her true nature started to show. Threatening a roommate in the dormitory, stringing many men along on her search for ‘the one’ rich enough to capture her and provide the living she dreamed of, even as she first groomed, then tried to destroy June.
June’s story is the most consistent and complete of the four: a near constant presence her curiosity about the purpose of her work, her genuine enjoyment of the newness of the world she had entered, and her enjoyment of the newness of her relationship with Sam: the ability to discuss her fears, her concerns and ask questions and learn from him. Even her attempts to lighten Sam’s load and keep his depression and drinking to a minimum were done selflessly. Her rise from simple ‘dial monitor’ to secretary for Sam in the laboratories, her abilities to overcome her basic start and move forward, learning more about people, herself and the purpose of Oak Ridge.
Lastly is Sam: a physicist and a Jew, he’s one who loves the science and the progress that this project has brought, while still struggling with his place and progress in building a bomb that, while it ends a war, will wreak untold havoc and suffering. An intellectual snob, with a decided lack of interpersonal skills: he hates everything about Tennessee; weather, accents, mud, locals, segregation and above all the overwhelming secrecy- where nothing is plain spoken. He’s trying to align his own personal hates (which make him a rather disagreeable person) with the work he loves, but downtime is a trial. When his relationship with Jane starts – he’s changing, slightly, with a new purpose – educate and guide this ignorant young girl to the world. Oh – he alternated between arrogant and needy, with a good dose of self-righteous acting out.
What Beard has created is a story of ‘what could have been”, none of these characters are real people, simple amalgams of the many who worked on the project. Bits of interest were often left to feel almost like a footnote, as often the story felt as if it wanted to go in another direction and would suddenly move to a differing point of view. The difficulties of life for everyone were touched on: the lines, the dust, the heat, the strain of secrets: and the huge celebrations at both VE and VJ days, the endless ‘sameness’ of each day for the people, and even the tension that I expected to find with the secrecy were missing for most of the story. Yes, each character provided a bit of emotional reaction from me, yet there were moments where I expected more development of a situation, circumstance or revelation. Not a bad story by any stretch of the imagination, but the multiple points of view muddled everyone’s individual story, none truly concluded or settled until the epilogue for each of them. While I think the attempt was to give a nuanced and interconnected story that brought forth the changes, growth and progress for each character in a way that integrated personal and professional lives, there was a piece missing that failed to bring everything together in a way that I believe was expected.
Title: The Atomic City Girls
Author: Janet Beard
Genre: Historical Fiction, Setting: American, World War II
Published by: William Morrow
Published on: 6 February, 2018
Source: Publisher Via Edelweiss
Audio Length: 8 Hours: 46 minutes
Get Your Copy: Amazon ♦ Barnes&Noble ♦ iTunes ♦ Kobo ♦ Downpour ♦ IndieBound ♦ Book Depository ♦ Google ♦Audible
“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.
A copy of this title was provided via Publisher Via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: