Review: The Atomic City Girls

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard tells a fictionalized version of a story that ought to be more widely known. Set in the conflict-torn days of World War II, the plot follows three perspectives, but primarily that of eighteen-year-old June Walker, a plain country girl from Tennessee, as she moves to a wartime boom town for her first job. As she unknowingly aids the Manhattan Project in building the first atomic bomb known to man, June begins an affair with Sam Cantor, a New York City Physicist, weaving their fates more than she could ever predict.

Janet Beard, an East Tennessee native, nailed the setting for The Atomic City Girls. Right away, the time period is established in the prologue with the idea of June’s grandfather being evicted from his residence in Bear Creek Valley so the land could be used by the army for a secretive project. The first chapter, set two years later, echoes this with June’s bus ride to the very same location, by then retitled “Oak Ridge.” The sensory detail exhibited during June’s arrival paints the perfect image of how drastically the place has changed since she had been there last. Whereas the valley had previously been described as “A good valley,” with sparse houses and rolling hills of land, its image changed to “a large town now, an expanse of buildings and homes that went on as far as she could see…. The cars on the road kicked up clouds of dust, which seemed to have landed on everything in sight.” Ms. Beard’s descriptions serve to not only enhance the plot, but also act as commentary on the dire alterations made by war.

The setting Janet Beard crafts for The Atomic City Girls also serves as a solid foundation for the building of characters and plot. In terms of characters, two out of the three narrators chosen seemed appropriate. June was likable and sweet with a storyline that wasn’t uncommon for the times—a dead soldier fiancé, working in a factory for the first time during the war, tensions with jealous friends—but just as important as the unique stories because a young woman’s perspective is not typically the one pushed to the forefront. June’s point of view is easily the highlight of The Atomic City Girls.

Although his progressively worsening treatment of June was frustrating, Sam’s narration provides an integral look into the Manhattan Project’s inner workings. Although we can’t tell what the workers are producing from June’s point of view, Sam was brought in specifically to help ensure the bomb’s creation, so he knows exactly what is going on in Oak Ridge. This juxtaposition creates mounting tension between the characters and the questions of morality that arise give the story more depth.

Joe’s perspective, on the other hand, does not serve an obvious purpose other than to diversify the cast. A black worker on the other side of the camp, Joe is not privy to the same information that Sam and June eventually are until he overhears their conversation. This doesn’t end up amounting to much, and while the remainder of his story arc works well to give a voice to someone who did not have one at the time, it doesn’t really relate to the main plot of the book. While Joe’s presence was a great decision, the choice to make him a narrator left his character feeling superficially explored at best.

For those interested in learning about what the Manhattan Project could have looked like from alternative points of view, The Atomic City Girls is a realistic and entertaining read, albeit not without flaws.

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