That Denise Kiernan’s book is well researched is not in question. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II is meticulously researched, relying, I’m sure, on hundreds of hours of in-person interviews, library and on-site visits, and probably even a course or two on atomic physics.
The question, though, is “so what?”
Just because Kiernan knows from whence she speaks doesn’t mean there’s actually a story there to be told, at least not one with any dramatic tension or reason for being, outside of a general knowledge essay. Yup, I can probably answer more pub quiz questions about Oak Ridge, TN than I could before, but this book has all the compulsion and narrative thrust of a 10th grade research paper.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a good book in there someplace, it’s just Kiernan was too focused on making sure none of her research went to waste in order to find it. Too many times she brings us to the brink of caring about one of the figures only to have whatever possible danger they are in not matter in the slightest. There are never any stakes for anyone. Even something as simple as telling about sending a fruitcake overseas, with the dramatic intonation that if the packing isn’t done correctly will result in crumbs being delivered…is never paid off. Once that fruitcake is sent, we never hear about it again. But that’s an easy one. It’s more when we have two people sharing military secrets, away from prying eyes, while all the while hoping they don’t get caught, and guess what? They don’t get caught. Not even that, they’re never actually in any danger whatsoever.
And that’s the problem. No one is ever in danger, no matter how much they break the rules or do things they shouldn’t be doing. When one woman needs to cook, she simply bribes the guards with her delicious biscuits, and all is right in the world.
Ultimately, for me, the biggest problem is the lack of structure. Each chapter bounces from woman to woman and then ends with a section about the development of “tube alloy,” which has absolutely nothing to do with The Girls of Atomic City. It’s interesting, sure. Often times more interesting than the supposed main thrust of the book, but again, so what?
Had this been done as a series of essays, each focused on a particular woman, and carried her story from beginning to end, there might have been more coherence. Had we understood the timeline of the research in correlation with the goings-on at Oak Ridge, we might have cared more. But in the end, we didn’t care because there was nothing ever to care about. We were bored because there was no dramatic purpose for telling us the story, no real depth to the people we were being introduced to – who, I am sure, were lovely people, but who also had so little strife portrayed in their lives, even the black woman who was facing all sorts of segregation and racism but endured it all with a smile, that there was nothing of interest to keep us going.
I kept waiting to find out why The Girls of Atomic City were so important, but all I got were they were awesome support staff for the men, the real heroes here, and the only reason most of them showed up was to find a husband. And even those women who had degrees and brains all their own, once the war was over, became wives and mothers at their new husband’s beck and call, no longer working because that’s not what women did. And there was no pushback, no authorial commentary, no insight at all.
So as I say, the writing is decent, I just wish it lead somewhere.
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