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BOOK REVIEW: Bringing a secret history to life

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I'm a bit of a history nerd, and I've always been fascinated by the "secret cities" that existed in America during World War II. One of those government-operated cities is in what is now Oak Ridge, Tenn. 

In October 1942, the government seized 60,000 acres of land near Knoxville, Tenn., to build four facilities for use in creating the atom bomb. They also built a city around these weapons labs to house the workers who would operate these facilities. Originally dubbed Clinton Engineer Works, the city housed 75,000 people by 1945 -- most of whom had absolutely no idea what they were actually working on until the atom bomb was used on Hiroshima, Japan. 

"The Atomic City Girls" by Janet Beard was published just last month and takes a fictional look at what it might have been like to live in Oak Ridge during the war. It follows four fictional characters throughout daily life in the secret city, allowing us to see through the eyes of two young women working at the Y-12 facility, a young scientist leading the effort to separate uranium isotopes using electromagnets in Y-12, and a middle-aged African-American construction worker struggling to provide for his family back in Alabama. 

Only the scientists and military personnel in charge of the facilities are allowed to know their purpose, but there is still a strict policy upon all the citizens to keep their knowledge or thoughts about the town to themselves. "Loose lips sink ships" and all that. However, young scientist Sam reveals the truth about Y-12 to one of the young women, a local named June. This small show of trust will eventually blow up in their faces, tying the lives of our four main characters together because of one slip of the tongue.

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Following these characters through their daily lives was fascinating -- a slice of American life in the '40s in one of the most unique places to exist. Adding to the wonderful blend of fact and fiction, Beard has obtained actual photos of Oak Ridge life from the Department of Energy and ends each chapter with a couple of these photos. The characters and settings are incredibly well-written and well-researched, dropping the reader into the lives of ordinary people living during an extraordinary time. 

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It's unsettling to an extent just how well-written this book is. A sense of anxiety pressed down on me until the very end, a fear for these characters, that they might accidentally tell the wrong person the wrong thing just as a matter of conversation. I could suddenly imagine what it was like to live there and to have to guard every single word spoken even without actually knowing any secrets. That this kind of paranoia and secrecy was a way of life for so many is a bit shocking in light of our current era of oversharing. 

A nagging feeling of impending doom carried me through much of the book, having the ability of hindsight to know what they were doing and creating there. I could never put myself fully into the shoes of the characters simply because I had the benefit of knowing history. Even so, I found myself trying to understand what it must have been like for them -- not knowing what they were doing but feeling that whatever they were doing was their duty to their country. 

When the first bomb was dropped and a realization that they were the atomic city dawned on the residents, I joined them in their sudden release of nervous energy. They were no longer a secret city, and the relief at being able to just be themselves again must have been overwhelming. Of course, with it came the reality of what they had helped create -- something that must have been hard to reconcile for so many. 

I found myself wondering if I could have lived under the pressure, and kept a secret I didn't even know. I wondered how the news would have affected me and if I'd have been able to live comfortably with myself knowing I'd been a part of such destruction. And then I realized that thousands of Americans lived through that very experience within our fairly recent history. 

Beard's work is so convincing that it could have been written about actual people living in Oak Ridge. One of those young women hired to turn knobs at Y-12 could easily have been my or your grandmother. It gets into your head and under your skin and makes you think what your life could have been had you been born just a few decades earlier. 

Could I have lived in the atomic city and kept its secrets from everyone I knew? I'll never know the answer to that, and I'm glad I won't have to.


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