Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Atomic City Girls

We all know, or think we know, about the Manhattan Project, which culminated in the bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. But in addition to the scientists who were putting their knowledge and, yes, their ideals into the creation of the atomic bomb, there was an instant Tennessee town filled with other workers, hundreds of them young women who performed tasks without knowing why, who couldn’t ask questions and certainly couldn’t answer them. The Atomic City Girls, published last month by William Morrow, is Janet Beard’s novelization of what daily life must have been like in the trailers and little houses, the bowling alleys and canteens, all purpose-built. This excerpt introduces 18-year-old new arrival, June Walker.

IT WAS TWO more days before June got her security clearance and was finally allowed to leave the accommodations in the bullpen to move into the dormitory. She was praying for a nice roommate.

The first thing she noticed about Cici Roberts was that she was tall. She stood straight with perfect posture, her navy jacket emphasizing her wide shoulders, which somehow did not look manly, but rather elegant. She carried herself as though she ought to be wearing a crown instead of the small hat that was perched on the dark brown waves of her shining hair, which perfectly framed her stunning face. Her lips were large and round, painted a deep red. She was unarguably beautiful, majestic, out of place in the drab, militaristic dorm room. Cici looked as though she had never darned a sock or weeded a vegetable garden or scrubbed a floor. She belonged in large rooms with high ceilings, sipping from porcelain teacups, ordering servants around.

And then she spoke. Her voice was coated with sugar, bourbon, and a sprig of cool mint, a perfect southern accent that to June was more recognizable from the movies than from anyone she knew in East Tennessee. Cici drawled out her words so that it didn’t much matter what she was saying; you listened to every note for its music. “Hello there! You must be June. I’m Cici Roberts of Nashville, Tennessee. It is such a pleasure to meet you. Why, you are just adorable! I’m so happy we’re living together and know we will be the best of friends.”

June shook Cici’s long, cool hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she replied, suddenly ashamed of her own hillbilly twang.

Author Janet Beard. / Photo courtesy of the publisher.

“Here, this is your cot,” motioned Cici, and June put her bag down beside it. “Isn’t this room just awful? I’ve tried to pretty it up a bit.” There were postcards decorating the wall over Cici’s bed. “But I’m afraid there’s only so much we can do.”

Cici sat on her bed and June did likewise on her own cot. “Where are you from?” Cici asked.

“Near Maryville.”

“Never heard of it. Is it nearby?”

“Not too far off. My mama grew up here in Oak Ridge.”

“That so? Hard to imagine what this place used to look like.”

“It looked about the same as every place else round here.” June looked around the room to a third bed. Cici followed her eyes.

“One other girl is living here.” Cici gave a quick look at the door and whispered, “I hate to say anything unkind, but between you and me, she’s just trash.”

June wondered what qualified this girl as trash but was afraid to ask. Cici went on: “The dorm is all right, though. They don’t allow men inside—what a nuisance! You should see them all huddled out front on Saturday night, waiting for their gals. The canteen across the street is a decent place, good coffee. We have it all right here. I’m sure you got the security talk in the bullpen. Let me tell you, they mean it. A girl living down the hall got fired last week. Folks said she wrote too much about town in a letter she wrote to her boyfriend overseas.”

“It doesn’t seem right they can read our letters.”

Cici shrugged. “It’s security, is all.”

“How long have you been in Oak Ridge?”

“Just two months, and they have flown by. Work keeps you busy, and the rest of the time we’re busy having fun. There are dances here almost every night—it’s like heaven. And the men! There are more men here than any other place in the country right now, except Army bases. But these men aren’t headed overseas next week; they’re staying right here! I mean, you have to be careful, of course. Some of them only have one thing on their minds, if you know what I mean.” She arched her perfectly formed brow. June nodded.

“Why, we should go out tonight to celebrate your arrival!” Cici beamed. “I bet you could pick up a soldier at the dance.”

June winced at this last comment. “Oh, I hardly know how to dance.”

“I’ll teach you! A pretty thing like you would have no problem getting a boy to teach you, either.”

“Maybe I could just watch you dance.”

“Nonsense! Being here is a golden opportunity; you mustn’t waste it. We will find you a soldier tonight.”

“I had a soldier,” she snapped, her voice louder than she meant for it to be.

Cici’s face deflated. “Oh.”

“My fiancé was killed three months ago.”

“Oh, you poor thing. I’m so sorry, and me going on this way.”

June hadn’t meant to blurt out about Ronnie that way. “It’s all right. I know you didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Of course. I shouldn’t have pestered you like that. But still, you should come to the dance. It’s a whole heap of fun, even if you’re not looking for a man.”

“I’d love to.” June felt tremendously glad to have a friend and something to do tonight. But the dance made her nervous, and she was glad to have an excuse not to flirt or try to catch a soldier’s eyes.

—Janet Beard

Excerpted from The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard. Copyright © 2018 by Janet Beard. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.


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