June Walker is a local girl who comes to work in the top-secret “Engineering” works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1944. She is paired with a self-made roommate fleeing her sharecropper heritage and soon attracts the notice of a Jewish-American physicist with whom she falls in love.
I admired June from the start. She had courage, but not that annoying “spunk” we read about. “Grit” was closer to the truth than “spunk,” but it doesn’t accurately describe her either. June’s attraction to Sam and Sam’s to June is the stuff that happens in intense situations away from home. The Peace Corps volunteer who falls for a “host-country national,” or the student assigned to shadow the foreign-exchange student who then falls in love with him — it’s that sort of thing. Sam loves the idea of a “forming” June, of educating her. June likes being with an unusually well-educated man who expresses opinions she is still almost afraid of holding.
CeCe, the roommate, cultivates the image of a Southern Belle to escape poverty. She evaluates soldier-dates only in terms of a future. She is a mercenary, protecting her carefully crafted image with a savagery that explains the old phrase “a velvet hand in an iron glove”. She is a true steel magnolia.
Though June doesn’t fully realize it, both girls are ambitious and hungry to better themselves. June’s pride in becoming a secretary — of finding work that truly suits her, illustrates much of what would later drive the “women’s liberation” movement of the early 1970’s.
But it was. June’s maturity about her relationship with Sam nearly leveled me. “If only…”, I thought, looking back at my own life. Wow.
Running alongside these two stories is that of Joe, a married “Negro” man separated from his wife due to a lack of housing for Negro families. While Negro couples could be employed they had to live separately in single-sex plywood shacks known as hutments. His young friend Ralph, like June, is looking to a new world.
One out-of-place scene:
I realize that even in World War II there were deeper thinkers around. But I found June’s reaction to the Army officer’s son’s Japanese flag — sent for Christmas by his Marine brother, to be wildly modern. I really could not envision an American of the time feeling as June did, though I’m sure there must have been someone like that, somewhere. They, like June, would have had to keep that to themselves.
One Other Tiny Thing:
While I imagine Oak Ridge was too great a cash-cow to stand on ceremony, I did wonder that Sam and June were not questioned on checking into a hotel. No wedding rings. Of course people had trysts all the time back then — war is a superb catalyst for spur-of-the-moment hook-ups after all, but there was generally an element of subterfuge — of going along with the public morals. No matter — it was a blip.
Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
And now, the non-fiction version, from 2013.
What can I say about non-fiction SCIENCE (a subject my brain barely handles) that is so compelling I read nearly 200 pages in one sitting without getting up for food or drink or bathroom breaks? This is the book! One of the best of the year in my opinion. While it is about science — the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb to be exact — it isn’t. Maybe that’s the secret. The short “science” sections even merit a different typeface to make them more distinct.
This is the story of a town that wasn’t on the map (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) and an audacious project to end World War II as quickly as possible. But more than that, it is the story of the transplanted workers, who did something few Americans today can comprehend: they did not share ANYTHING about their work. What’s the first question we usually ask socially in this country? “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” They could not tell anything. That alone makes the story fascinating.
Then imagine that African American couples moving to Oak Ridge to work on the project not only had to live apart in single-sex “hutments” with no real windows, but could not bring their children because no schools were provided for “negro” or “colored” children, even though President Roosevelt agreed to no discrimination in hiring for war industries.
The story of the mainly, but not exclusively, young idealistic workers makes great, compelling reading. I highly recommend this book — it’s the kind of nonfiction that makes me stop to wonder why authors (myself included) write novels when real life stories are even more interesting! The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan. [Published November 27, 2013, on my old blog.]
Other books that might interest readers:
Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit
Like The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, this book is told in a slightly odd, almost poetic, plural voice that generalizes everything. “Our Marcias got chicken pox…” (p. 14) “We were round-faced, boisterous, austere, thin-boned…” (p. 12). It does not read like a novel, but does tell the story in its way. Like reading a montage of photos. I hope this isn’t the new cool literary fad of the year. It’s very difficult to follow the thread of the story–all the “we” and “us” get in the way. There is no one to focus on. A group is too much.
Minor historical errors of this magnitude: Soldiers in World War II weren’t issued black glasses.
The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit. [This review is from my old blog and was published on March 25, 2014.]
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church is almost an alternative ending for June’s story in Atomic City Girls.