Janet Beard is the author of The Atomic City Girls, a riveting novel of the everyday people who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. In the guest post below, she shares her personal connection to the true events she's brought back to life.
Growing up nearby in East Tennessee, I first learned about the history of Oak Ridge at age seven, on a field trip to the city’s American Museum of Science and Energy. About half the of AMSE was a typical children’s science museum with a focus on energy where we could do things like touch a ball that would make our hair stand up with static electricity. The other half told the history of the making of the first atomic bombs, and that half freaked me out. I don’t know if I knew what atomic weapons were before that visit, but I remember being deeply concerned about them after and even asking my dad that night how we knew that some other country might not drop a bomb on us at any moment. This would have been the twilight years of the Cold War, but I didn’t know enough to have specific concerns about the USSR. Mine was the more general anxiety of beginning to grow up and realize that the world is full of horrors.
Throughout my Tennessee youth, Oak Ridge remained a local symbol of that anxiety, as well as scientific achievement—the two halves of the museum. But when I returned to the Oak Ridge story as an adult, it was the more personal narratives that drew me in. I happened on a TV documentary about the ‘Calutron girls’ who manned the Y-12 laboratory during WWII, unbeknownst to themselves, enriching uranium. My childhood fascination returned, along with a new interest in these women’s stories. I read everything I could about Oak Ridge during the war. I revisited the city, where only fragments of the temporary wartime architecture remain, save for the mostly still off-limits (for those without security passes) labs. And I talked to my own grandmother, who I found out for the first time had worked for the Manhattan Project in Knoxville, typing documents for what purpose she never knew, while her sister worked in Oak Ridge.
Their experiences were typical of that generation in East Tennessee. The scope of the project was so large that it affected the entire community—particularly young women, who were entrusted with much of the US war effort on the home front. And for me it was this massive collision of everyday lives with the combined forces of history, science, industry, and war that made me want to write a novel. Ordinary individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds came together to assist in the creation of one of history’s greatest and most horrible achievements, while bearing witness to the birth of the United States superpower. And all in my own native, unassuming hills of Tennessee, no less. That was a fascinating story—or rather, a fascinating premise for hundreds of mostly forgotten stories. This book is my effort to bring a handful of those stories to life.
Look for The Atomic City Girls available now everywhere books are sold.