The BUZZ: This New York Times and Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller is Denise Kiernan’s 4th in the history genre.
The GIST: In 1942, a government city sprang up seemingly overnight in the Tennessee hills. It was called Oak Ridge, and its sole purpose was to purify uranium for use in an atomic bomb. Of the 75,000 people living there at its peak in 1945, only a handful knew what they were ultimately working on. Secrecy was paramount, and those who asked too many questions were escorted off the sprawling and heavily guarded property. Many living there were women, working as scientists, secretaries, cleaners, medical staff, and technicians. They were predominantly young and adventurous, looking for steady work and experience, willing to live in dormitories and pre-fab homes for as long as it took. To do what they weren’t sure, but they knew they were helping the war effort, and that was enough to quell their concerns. This is the true story of Oak Ridge and its residents, told through the recollections of women who lived there from its founding.
The WRITING: Science and history together, in the hands of a less gifted writer, could sink a book. Kiernan, though, is adept at both demystifying physics and telling stories. In alternating chapters, she brings us through the creation of the atomic bomb and a thriving, non-stop city, both evolving at breakneck speed. Through her interviews with women who experienced the excitement and mystery and, ultimately, the shocking realization of what they had been part of, Kiernan fills in the details of exactly how we harnessed atomic power to end WWII.
BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. Despite its weighty topic, this is not a heavy read. Oak Ridge was an unintentional social experiment, the result of the Pentagon’s urgent need to bring an end to the war. Kiernan provides a fascinating account of what happens when real people are willing to do whatever it takes to serve a greater cause.
Dorms and dating, babysitting and bridge. CEW was in many ways an outpost best suited to the young, those for whom enthusiasm trumped exhaustion and the sense of adventure outran hardship.
The military may have been in charge, but the irrepressible life force that is woman – that was well beyond their control.