January Book a Month: The Girls of Atomic City

GirlsofAtomicCityIn Bas Bleu’s Holiday 2013 catalog, we debuted our 2014 Book a Month series, an eclectic collection of twelve carefully selected titles for discerning readers. Each month here in the Bluestocking Salon, we’ll offer discussion questions about the featured work—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. You may use the questions to reflect back on each book once you’ve finished it or to guide you as you read. Either way, we hope these features will enrich your reading experience. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

Our January selection is The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan. Bas Bleu reviewer KG tells us why she devoured this fascinating book:

I grew up in east Tennessee, about a hundred miles south of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. My grandparents hailed from a tiny town just down the road from where the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW) was built. Yet for most of my life I’ve known little about the place other than that it played a crucial role in the development of the atomic bomb. Not only did Denise’s book provide a ‘local’ with an in-depth look into the history of the place, it gave me an inkling of what must have been a tremendous upheaval for my grandparents’ native community.

1. In Chapter 1, we met Celia Szapka, a Pennsylvania-bred young woman who accepted a top-secret government job without knowing where she would be working, what she would be doing, or how she would live. She boarded a train in New York with no clue as to where it would take her, as did so many of the women who came to Oak Ridge to assist in the Manhattan Project. Could you take such a leap of faith?

2. The Manhattan Project relied heavily on a strict veil of silence and secrecy. Most members of Congress didn’t know it existed, and Harry Truman was astounded by the truth of it when he unexpectedly entered the Oval Office. Would it be possible today for the U.S. government to keep a project of such scope under wraps? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

3. The CEW site was an unusual place, a military complex carved out of mountains and farmland where the mud ran like rivers and employees worked grueling hours at jobs they were forbidden from discussing. And yet Kiernan details the many ways in which the men and women stationed there achieved a semblance of normalcy: running errands, making friends, and even pursuing romance. While the government did take steps to manage morale, do you think this adaptability reflects something inherent in the human spirit or was it simply the attitude of a wartime generation?

4. Kattie Strickland’s experience with segregation in CEW is sobering for those of us who grew up after the Civil Rights movement. Can her experience—and that of the other African-American workers—with institutionalized discrimination be compared to that of the female scientists whose contributions to the Manhattan Project were often overlooked or credited to their male colleagues?

5. The United States’s entry into the war resulted in a nationwide labor shortage that was addressed by more than one million women entering the workforce. (Hello, Rosie the Riveter!) Yet when the war ended and the men returned, the women were sent home again. What would our society look like today if all of the women who wanted to remain in the workforce after 1945 had been allowed or encouraged to do so?

6.  After the successful testing of the bomb in July 1945 in New Mexico, the Secretary of War received the confirmation message: “The baby is born.” It was indeed the birth of a brave new world. But what if the bomb was never developed? How different might our world be today?

7. Have the “girls of Atomic City” changed the way you view America’s choice to use the atomic bomb? How would you have felt in their shoes, learning that your work had produced the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

8. Kiernan mentions that the success of the Manhattan Project directly affected the status—and the funding—of the physical sciences at research universities across the country. Additionally, it led to the establishment of a network of national laboratories and the birth of “Big Science.” Should there be a moral voice in the pursuit of scientific advancement? If so, who decides where to draw the line and how?

9. When reading nonfiction, how is your experience enriched by the personal accounts of those who lived through the events under discussion? 

4 thoughts on “January Book a Month: The Girls of Atomic City

  1. This was an excellent book, well written, and well researched. It was fascinating to read the personal histories interwoven with the facts of this immense governmental project hidden in the hills of Tennessee. The description of the psychological issues especially struck me, as Robert Heinlein addressed the exact issues in one of his stories. His fictional reactor was not a secret, but the dangers involved had the same effect on the workers — it made me wonder if he was privy to some of the details of this project when he was in the military. I was privileged to meet a survivor of Hiroshima. She was 18 and working in an office building in downtown — on the side away from the blast, or she would not have survived. She married a member of our occupation forces, and lived a long life — testimony to the fact that radiation is an odd thing. In an interview, just a few years ago, she said she dreamed of the explosion every single night. There’s an image for you. I do believe that bombing Japan was the fastest way to end the war, but I also believe that there was a trade-off in lives — theirs for ours. I also believe that everyone involved in the bombing died a bit, themselves, in the knowledge that so many woman and children were killed. But I don’t believe that the war would have stopped at our fighters, if the fighting had spread, and mercy is dearly bought. Thanks for an interesting book to start the year, I look forward to the next one!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Kathleen. We’re glad you enjoyed the book, and we’ll do our best to keep the interesting reads coming your way!

  2. Just a side-note to my earlier review. My mom read the book as well, and she told me that my grandfather had been head-hunted by the group very early on. He was a self-taught engineer, and built many rice mills and graineries around the mid-South, Texas and Mexico.

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