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Posted: February 13, 2022

The Atomic City Girls is no small feat

Book Review

By Derryll White

Beard, Janet (2018).  The Atomic City Girls

“Everyone pays a loafer’s wages.  You with hard work, your sons and brothers with LIVES.”

-Dept. of Energy sign at the Manhattan Project gates.

One of the defining moments of the 20th century – the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima and ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki – came about through a huge scientific research endeavour, the Manhattan Project. Today we live with the results of that undertaking, nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, decaying uranium storage in Hanford, Washington, and the still looming thoughts of nuclear winter and apocalypse.

Janet Beard uses her Tennessee roots to bring the reader personally into the social reality of the end of the Second World War and its nuclear aftermath.

Beard is skillful in blending the enormity of the consequences of the Manhattan Project and the depressing news of the war with the intimate details of class, race and gender and the complexities of young women living together.  It is no small feat that she pulls it off so well.

This is definitely a novel worth reading. Even those of us born in 1945 or slightly later now forget many of the consequences of the nuclear age – nuclear proliferation, the Cold War, the vilification of Japan, the Cuban missile crisis. Beard hints at the way the bombing of Japan was used to pull America together by declaring a common enemy at the end of the war.

It is eminently worthwhile to reflect on what the scientists of the Manhattan Project gave to the world

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk

            Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk

            Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette

            And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet

            You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago

            For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.

– Bob Dylan


Excerpts from the novel:

ATOMIC PRINCIPLE – ‘The center of the atom is called a nucleus, and it’s made up of parts called neutrons and protons.  If you break up an atom’s nucleus, energy is released.  And if you can figure out a way to create a chain reaction, where breaking up one atom causes other atoms to break up as well, then you could release a huge amount of energy.”

WAR – “You would never see this money, these resources being spent in peacetime.  No government would go to this trouble to research cures for diseases or simply advance human knowledge.  No, we exert ourselves to this extent only in times of war, ti invent killing machines.”

ATOMIC BOMB – “Both science and industry worked under the direction of the United States Army, which achieved a unique success in managing so diverse a problem in the advancement of knowledge in an amazingly short time.  It is doubt if such another combination could be got together in the world.  What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.  It was done under high pressure and without failure.”

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at

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