The Women Who Built the Bomb: Author Denise Kiernan Tonight at Parnassus

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Denise Kiernan’s latest book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, explores the lives of the thousands of women who worked in Oak Ridge during World War II. As Tennesseans, chances are good you might have known a few of them yourself.

Reviewing the book for Chapter16.org, Kristen Iversen applauds the author for illuminating this little-known segment of World War II history, with its glimpses of women entering the workforce unaware of the project's true scope:

Recruits to the Clinton Engineer Works were promised opportunity and steady, good-paying work at a time when many Americans were struggling. For women in particular, Oak Ridge offered not only a way to help the war effort, but a path to a different kind of life that included educational or professional opportunities they might not have had otherwise. From farms and small towns, women came to Oak Ridge filled with hope for a solid job, a bit of adventure and perhaps a chance at romance. “The Project liked high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds,” Kiernan writes.

The Girls of Atomic City vividly brings to life the day-to-day details of living in a hastily constructed town. There are rules and guards at every turn. Despite cramped quarters, poor food and few leisure activities, life goes on. Shoes are lost in the seemingly endless mud, and women resort to walking barefoot through the gunk, heels held high over their heads. In a town filled with 20-somethings, marriages and babies were part of the picture. Kiernan quotes one young woman’s explanation for her apparent lack of curiosity about the nature of the work she was doing: “Then we started stewing about the furnace and the mud and the [baby] sitter problem — and forgot all about the project.”

Kiernan will be speaking about the book, which The Daily Beast called a combination of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, at Parnassus Books tonight at 6:30. Feminists of all stripes, oral history buffs and fans of wartime storytelling should gather in droves to hear Kiernan speak about the fascinating women she interviewed — some of whom discussed their experience publicly for the first time.

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