In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes this riveting novel of the everyday people who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”
In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.
The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. 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.
When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (February 6, 2018)
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (February 6, 2018)
Since historical fiction, particularly when it is set in the World War II era, is a favorite of mine I was excited to sign up this book tour. I like historical fiction that gives me a unique perspective of the war and I found the setting of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a small town built by the government in order to do research and produce materials and components in order to beat Germany in building an atomic weapon, fascinating. Los Alamos, New Mexico is most well known for The Manhatten Project and I confess to being unaware of the happenings in Oak Ridge. Equally unaware are the main character of the book, June Walker, and the other hundreds of young women like her who have come to Oak Ridge for the high-paying jobs operating machines that they don't know anything about. They sit for hours every day or night (depending on their shifts) in a booth while watching and monitoring the dials of a machine, but not being able to ask questions about their work or tell anyone what they are doing.
In addition to June, the story unfolds from the perspective of three other characters, June's roommate Cici--another machine operator like June, African-American, Joe Brewer--who leaves his wife and young children to do construction work in Oak Ridge, along with his friend, the troubled Ralph, and finally Sam Cantor--a Jewish scientist who is the only one of the four characters who knows what the purpose of Oak Ridge really is. June becomes involved with Sam and gradually learns what is happening. June is a young eighteen, naive but eager to learn and very likable. Joe is another character I rooted for--wincing every time the bigotry and discrimination of the times reared its ugly head in the story. Sam is complicated--I wanted to like him and at times I did, and then there is Cici, solely out for herself in every thought and action.
I was immediately caught up in the story of The Atomic City Girls and the book's close to 400 pages flew by. It is clear that Janet Beard did her research for the book and writes in a way that makes dusty, bustling Oak Ridge and the characters living there come to life. I found myself invested in these characters, wanting to know what would happen to them, especially June and Joe. I did want a bit more from the ending because after a lot of detail and build up, things actually wrap up rather quickly--although there is an epilogue that talks about what happens with the four main characters that I appreciated. The Atomic City Girls illuminated a piece of American history that I wasn't aware of and it had me googling Oak Ridge and its role in The Manhattan Project for more information. I was sorry to have the story end and recommend it especially for fans of World War II historical fiction.
Author Notes: Born and raised in East Tennessee, Janet Beard earned an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She currently lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio.
Find out more about Janet at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Even during war time and with rationing, there is food to be found in The Atomic City Girls--most of it what is served in the cafeteria in Oak Ridge. There are lots of biscuits, potatoes--mashed and roasted, breakfast foods like bacon and eggs, coffee, grits, toast, sausage, pancakes, and biscuits and gravy. There are tuna sandwiches, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, potato soup, beans and rice. There were dinners mentioned including ham, mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls and one with pork chops with spicy applesauce, green beans, roasted potatoes, rolls and apple pie as well as meals of beef hash and potatoes and chicken and beef stews. There were mentions of shoofly pie and fried okra and collard greens. Even though Oak Ridge was a dry town--serving only beer at the canteen, there were mentions of Johnny Walker whiskey, rum, and black market moonshine.
Spaghetti was mentioned a few times--the Oak Ridge cafeteria spaghetti got panned by a side character, an Italian from New York, but it was June's first experience with it and she "delighted in twirling the strands around her fork and slurping down the red sauce." Spaghetti and macaroni and cheese seemed to be her favorite meals to eat, so for my book-inspired dish I decided to make a good and simple spaghetti, keeping it vegetarian for since I don't eat meat.
Since I decided on spaghetti, I wanted to finally try the late Italian chef and cookbook author, Marcella Hazan's classic recipe for tomato sauce. It uses just four ingredients--tomatoes, butter, an onion, and sea salt, but it gets huge raves from everyone who makes it. Granted in the World War II era, it is unlikely that anyone would be putting 5 tablespoons of butter into a tomato sauce but I took a little liberty in my recipe interpretation to try it and I'm glad I did.
Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce
Slightly Adapted from The New York Times
(Makes Enough Sauce for 1 lb Pasta)
2 cups tomatoes + juices (like a 28-oz can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)
5 Tbsp butter
1 onion, peeled & cut in half
Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter and the onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.
Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon. Add salt as needed.
Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta. (Note: I pulsed my sauce a couple of times in the blender for a smother consistency.)
Notes/Results: This sauce deserves all of the accolades that it gets. It is simple to make, relatively hands off, can be made from pantry ingredients, and tastes fresh and amazing. I used good canned Italian tomatoes--the whole San Marzano tomatoes the recipe called for and I imagine it would only be better with fresh tomatoes. The butter adds a silkiness to the sauce and a richness, the onion and salt enhance the flavor. For such a simple recipe it was delicious when eaten with the spaghetti--I topped it with some Parmesan shavings, fresh basil, and freshly ground black pepper and I was happy and satisfied--so much so that I practically licked the bowl clean. I will definitely make the sauce again as I think it will be equally fabulous on bruschetta or on flat bread for pizza.
I'm sharing this post with the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.
Note: A review copy of "The Atomic City Girls" was provided to me by the author and the publisher, Harper Collins, via TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.