Literature Inspired by the Atomic Bomb
Although many people have “traditional” favorite historical periods, such as the Civil or Revolutionary war, one of my favorites is the time period surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb. Perhaps what I find even more interesting than that major scientific feat are the women of that era, often the wives and companions of the male scientists, but sometimes the workers themselves. Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb, or the gadget, and while it’s certainly inspired any number of books, far fewer focus on female influence. In the following three books, two fiction and one non-fiction, the authors explore what it was like to be female in a male dominated environment, set against the backdrop of a catastrophic shift in warfare.
"The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" by Denise Kiernan is the best kind of non-fiction, featuring fluid prose and telling a remarkable story. From the publisher, “At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not appear on any map. Thousands of civilians, many of them young women from small towns across the U.S., were recruited to this secret city, enticed by the promise of solid wages and war-ending work. What were they actually doing there? Very few knew. The purpose of this mysterious government project was kept a secret from the outside world and from the majority of the residents themselves. Some wondered why, despite the constant work and round-the-clock activity in this makeshift town, did no tangible product of any kind ever seem to leave its guarded gates? The women who kept this town running would find out at the end of the war, when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed and changed the world forever.” While it’s easily readable and, for someone like me, endlessly fascinating, it is also meticulously researched. It’s an excellent place to start in the mysteries surrounding the atomic era.
My next recommendation is "The Wives of Los Alamos" by TaraShea Nesbit. Featuring the lives of the real life women who were uprooted and relocated to a desolate, isolated area of New Mexico in order to be with their husbands, Nesbit’s debut novel provides unique insight into a not-oft discussed subject. While there is plenty of information discussing the Manhattan Project, what about the domestic life of the scientists and their families? This is the ground Nesbit covers, and she does show inventively and graciously. Oppenheimer, Bohr and Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman all makes appearances, but the real story is revealed through the wives.
My final recommendation is "The Atomic Weight of Love" by Elizabeth J. Church. Rather than a non-fiction account of women in Tennessee or a fictional account of the wives, this novel focuses on the hopes and dreams of one woman, Meridian Wallace, and what she gives up in support of her marriage. She herself is a scientist, a brilliant student working towards her doctorate in ornithology, but follows her physicist husband to the remote southwest in pursuit of a secret project. Spanning decades, "The Atomic Weight of Love" is the tale of one woman’s both ordinary and extraordinary life. From atomic bombs to a failing marriage to the lives of crows, Meridian’s story is a pleasure to read. Comparable to Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel is a moving, science-minded tale of the roles women were relegated to in midcentury America, yet it doesn’t get bogged down in it. It is an insightful, notable debut.
While there is no shortage of books covering the era of the Manhattan Project, it is always lovely to get a different perspective. Any of these books could do that for you, and I hope you have the pleasure of reading them.