Book Reviews From the Vault: The Atomic City Girls

I had a lot of mixed reactions while reading The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard. Find out what elements made me feel this way.

Once in a blue moon, there comes a book that is misleading. It directs readers on a different path that the one it promises to go on. However, if the book is written well, readers can easily look pass that flaw. We will examine this notion with The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard.

When hearing the title, The Atomic City Girls, one can assume that it is about everyday women working in Atomic City (aka Oak Ridge, Tennessee) during World War II, right? Well, it is true that the story takes place in Atomic City, but it focuses on TWO WOMEN and TWO MEN – the women being June Walker – an 18-year-old country girl – and Cici Roberts – June’s roommate who tries to find a wealthy husband. The men are Sam Cantor – an alcoholic Brooklyn Jewish physicist who oversees the lab that June works at – and Joe Brewer – an African-American construction worker. June and Sam have a turbulent affair, and there is also a security breach.

In addition, when readers think of Atomic City, they would think of the atomic bomb and the debate about its justification as discussed in beginning philosophy classes. Well, this novel barely does that. In fact, it barely shows the women working on the parts that would make up the bomb. I get that Beard was trying to emphasis the social aspects of working in Atomic City, yet it would have made more sense to have the characters question their work more so than they actually do. Characters also barely talk about the bomb’s moral implications. Whenever they do, it is mainly black or white. Even Glass Houses by Louise Penny had far more interesting discussions on the notion of sacrificing people as a way to save more lives with the Coventry Blitz conspiracy. Beard could have had the characters discuss the complex implications about the bomb, yet she decided to show most of them have soap-opera-like drama.

Moreover, some other characters can be interpreted as shallow. Here is an indicator of how flat and insipid they could be. Throughout the novel, Sam bonds with a minor character named Max about their dissonance with dropping the atomic bomb. However, during the novel’s second half, Sam is shocked to find out that Max, despite his stance against the bomb, believes that it was always inevitable that the United States would still drop it on Japan. Sam is so furious to hear about this that he calls Max a liar! What? I think Sam was drunk, but why does the book have to treat grey area as appalling? Most debates are hardly black or white.

There was also an overemphasis on some characters, specifically Joe. I completely understand why Beard created Joe. She wanted to demonstrate the differences in class and race treatment at Oak Ridge. The book hypes up Joe as an important part of the story, for its summary says this:

“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.”

If one actually decides to read it, they will find that Joe’s story only overlaps with the others towards the last third, and that lasts about 5-10 pages tops. I comprehend that it was the author’s intention to deliberately segregate Joe from the rest of the main characters. I honestly wanted to care about Joe’s subplot, yet his story felt like it belonged in a different book. It also did not help that I barely cared for the characters involved with his story because I only wanted to see how he interacted with June, Sam, and Cici, and that barely happened.

Despite the misguiding, this novel had some interesting characters, especially June and Cici. June starts off as a naïve country girl who initially presses a button as part of her work and later becomes a secretary to Sam. Overtime, she learns the purpose of her work and becomes more confident about herself, and she even expresses conflicting thoughts about the bomb. Cici is probably the most developed character out of the main four. She acts like a Southern Belle, but she is really a sharecropper’s daughter trying to marry into money, and she will stop at nothing. Even though her actions can easily be interpreted as villainess, readers will know exactly what her motivations and circumstances are. Spoiler alert: she does get her comeuppance in the epilogue.

In addition, I enjoyed the research. I liked the effort that Beard put into making Atomic City and the people accurate. This is especially true in the beginning of the book when June is first introduced to the lab that she would be working in, its dress codes, and the security clearances that she has to go through. The book also contains photographs taken in Atomic City while the Manhattan Project was still going on as well as a timeline of the project that coincides with the story’s events. Too bad I did not read the physical copy.

I listened to the audiobook, which was voiced by award winning audiobook narrator Xe Sands. Sands does a great job at giving distinctive voices to June and Cici. With June, she gives a whispering kind of voice that grows confident over the course of the book and enough twang that is not stereotypical. With Cici, Sands provides true Southern Belle charm with her sophisticated husky vocalization, which sucked me into her despite her evil ways. While Sands does a good job at voicing Sam, I did not find much distinction with Joe. Joe almost sounded like every other male character besides Sam. Maybe that is the reason why I could not connect with his story.

Overall, The Atomic City Girls is not the worst historical fiction novel that I have ever read, yet it is not the best. I admire the research that Beard put into it and the developed characters, but those are the real distractions from the 1940s soap opera that plays out with most of them. It also does not help that I felt misled while listening to it and that some characters and plot points were overemphasized. If I were to recommend this book, I would suggest it to people who are interested in World War II, specifically the involvement of everyday women and the making of the atomic bomb. Preferably, I would advise people to read The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan. At least, that book actually focuses on the WOMEN and THEIR WORK in Atomic City.

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Published by emilyblakowski

I work at two public libraries in southeast Michigan, and I facilitate a book club for one of them. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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