The Atomic City Girls Janet Beard
Date Finished: February 1, 2018
Date Published; February 6, 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction (World War II)
Source: TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins
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.
One of the trends in books, and in entertainment in general, that I particularly appreciate is recognizing the scientific achievements of women. As the mother of a daughter, this is a welcome trend and one I would like to support. So, when I heard about this book, I knew I had to give it a try.
Here’s the thing, though. I feel like I’m the victim of a bait and switch. This book is not about the “Atomic City girls.” There are two story lines and one of them does involve a young woman, but not to the point that it got into any sort of scientific achievement. Instead, it was more a case of girl finds herself in a not entirely appropriate relationship. The other half of the relationship, the physicist Sam, actually seems to be more of the focus of that particular plot. Because of this, it all just felt off. The title told me that the whole book was about June (or June and others…the “girls” is plural!) and then it gives more weight to the male character?
The other story line centers around an African-American man, Joe. This was the more interesting of the two plots for me (ironic, given the title of this book!). I felt that Joe was a more well-rounded character and that his actual story was far more nuanced. I would have rather read a book based solely on this plot than one where it tried to focus on two. When a novel runs two parallel stories, there needs to be a point where the stories become intertwined with each other. In this book, there is a scene where Joe passes June’s roommate on the street and…that’s it. As a result, the story never felt finished to me.
There were a few things I liked. As I said, Joe’s story did hook me, and I liked that Sam and June’s relationship was believable throughout the book. At tines, Beard made the setting of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and actual character in the book, and I wished she had done that more often.
This was not a successful read for me, although I think the potential was there (and it might have been more successful with a different title and more accurate synopsis!). I would be open to read more from Janet Beard in the future, although I can’t say that I would recommend this book.