The Atomic City Girls, Janet Beard, author.
I thought I was actually going to be reading the non fiction book called “The Girls of Atomic City”, so my bad, since that one is non-fiction and this one is fiction. Still, I thought there would be more history in this novel. Instead, it seemed to morph into a good beach read that was basically about various romantic relationships.
Four different kinds of characters were featured. One was June. She graduated from high school and went to work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where scientists were secretly experimenting with Uranium to develop a bomb to end World War II, and all wars, they hoped. Her family’s land had been confiscated for the project. She was a simple and naïve young woman who had been engaged to someone who died soon after he enlisted. She realized she did not truly love him.
Another character was Cici. She was a mean liar and a phony who was like a chameleon. She took on the character and personality of those she wanted to surround herself with and did it well. She pretended to be someone other than who she was and was pretty unscrupulous about it, hurting those who stood in her way or threatened her. She pretended to be of the upper class. She wanted a rich husband, and she wanted to find him at Oak Ridge where men were plentiful.
Then there was the young Jewish scientist, Dr. Sam Kanter. He was unconcerned about his appearance and was deeply concerned about the purpose of the project. He was consumed with his worries and was largely unable to relax and enjoy himself. He drank too much and was a bit arrogant, pompous and condescending.
The fourth character was Joe, a black construction worker who was subservient in his behavior, by choice and necessity. He was content to be making more money than he ever had but disappointed and lonely because he was not allowed to have his wife and family with him. He missed them, but only white workers were allowed to have family housing. Joe wanted to remain neutral and not make waves, so he stayed out of trouble.
As contented as Joe was, Sam was discontented. He was not happy with much at Oak Ridge and made sure to let everyone know. As naïve and kind as June was, Cici was the opposite. Both June and Joe had alter egos, it seems, in those characters, and the author used the contrast in her storyline.
The author did a fine job of placing the reader into the time and place of the community of Oak Ridge. It felt authentic. Also, the racial conflicts of those times were definitely emphasized as the difference between the salary, lifestyles, food, accommodations, civil rights and social scenes were described and were alarming and unfair. They were all working to end the war, but some were far more equal than others and the racial divide was difficult to stomach.
The characters seemed a bit like caricatures of real people. June was an uneducated hayseed who loved her family. She had undiscovered talent and absorbed information like a sponge. Cici was a femme fatale who could play any part she wished, even though she was without a pedigree and without a family she cared about. She was hiding her past from everyone and never seemed to recognize her own faults, but rather embraced them. Sam was self-centered, a know it all who thought he was better than everyone else. Perhaps his redeeming feature was that he seemed to be the only one with a conscience about the war’s ultimate carnage. I thought he would want revenge because his family was being wiped out by Hitler, but he seemed to place himself above it all. Joe was the only one who seemed content with his job and his family. He had so little, that what he was able to get at Oak Ridge was a boon for him. He was happy with the lifestyle he had achieved for himself and grateful for the money he was able to send back to his wife and kids to improve their lives.
Some of the dialog was far fetched and overly dramatic. It was also a bit confusing at times, for me, since I thought it was odd that the Jewish character did not want to end the war, as much as everyone else, by any means possible. I guess I also wondered why the author chose Sam to be the malcontent. The hayseed, June, became a well educated character in later life and married a very educated man. The sneaky femme fatale found her rich husband and succeeded with all of her manipulative efforts and was satisfied with her life, even when it didn’t turn out exactly as planned. Joe was the only one who was not really able to move on and improve any part of his life. He had far less opportunity and choice. All of the characters, though, seemed to be a bit contrived to prove some point that escaped me.
In the end, however, the writing style was simple and easy to follow. It was straight forward. The setting was authentic, the racial divide and lifestyles of the characters were contrasted well and the author tied up all the loose ends neatly, although it seemed to end a bit abruptly as the characters lives into the future were described in only a few pages.