Stereotypical Women Doing Non-stereotypical Work Are Still Stereotypically Dull

The disgruntled reader has returned! Here I was, on such a lovely stretch of books that, while maybe not great, were at least readable. And then along came The Girls of Atomic City. As a female scientist, this book ought to be right up my alley. As a female scientist who’s done some work with nuclear, stories about Oak Ridge should have me riveted. As a female scientist who’s grandmother was a decoder for the Navy in WWII, I ought to have felt a strong connection to the women of this story. But no. This book was terribly organized, badly written, and frankly, a bit of an insult to the women involved. I couldn’t finish it.

So let’s get that part out of the way: According to my Kindle, I was 30% of the way through the book when the urge to bash my Kindle to bits because the story was so awful overcame me, and I had to give up for the sake of my poor reading device. Based on other reviews I read, it sounds like the book continues in exactly the same fashion right up to the end, so I have no qualms encouraging readers to stay away. That said, take everything I say with a grain of salt because I didn’t finish.

The objective of this book was to highlight the work women did at Oak Ridge during WWII. That topic should be fascinating beyond all reason. Instead, it’s one of the most boring, tedious books I’ve ever attempted.

First, the organization is terrible. The book bounces from one woman to another, and then to information about Oak Ridge, and then to information about the Manhattan Project, and then to men who were the brains behind the Manhattan Project (even though this was supposed to be a book about the women), and then back and forth and back and forth until your head spins and you spew pea soup. Some reviewers I read complained of struggling to keep track of the different characters. I didn’t have that problem, but there’s a good chance the other reviewers got farther than I did, so maybe the characters get more confusing later on.

Second, all that bouncing around, providing one fact after another, and yet there’s absolutely NO DEPTH. Describing these women as two-dimensional is a bit of an overstatement. Even one-dimensional may be a stretch. The way these women are described leaves them completely lacking in anything resembling personality or intelligence, and it’s impossible for anyone to connect to them, to their lives or to their plights.

Third, seriously, no personality or intelligence. The way these women are described is nothing more than a caricature of a stereotype. They come across as shallow, dull females, which is a shame because there are snippets here and there that indicate these women were anything but shallow and dull.

At one point, the author seems like she’s trying to present the women well by pointing out how much more productive they were than the male PhD scientists in Berkley who were tasked with the same project. But here’s the thing: the men were less productive because they were constantly fiddling with the gadgets and machinery in an attempt to improve how everything worked. Perhaps the mens’ efforts were misguided, but it is not a compliment to the women to be more productive because they sat there and did exactly what they were told without questioning anything. After that scene (or maybe right before?), the author explains how every time something went wrong with one of the machines a woman was working on, she’d have to go find a man to fix it for her. Then, the poor girls come across as even more vapid because all they care about are boys and dating. Now, don’t get me wrong, these were 20-year-old women whose main objective prior to the war was to get married, and they’d just fallen into a town full of young, eligible men. I completely expect them to be just as smitten and distracted by the men as the men were of them. But that doesn’t make them interesting to write about. The author chose to gloss over the female physicists who were actually involved in developing the theory behind the bomb, instead focusing on people like the secretary who was too concerned with her shoes, clothes and social life to take it upon herself to discover that the man for whom she was dictating was one of the major generals of the war.

Had the author picked one woman and written in great depth about who she was and what her life was like at Oak Ridge, while intertwining the stories of the other women and the Manhattan Project, this could have been a work of sheer genius. Instead, I walked away with the knowledge that Oak Ridge was REALLY MUDDY when operations first began (this is another point that gets hammered into the reader’s head over and over and over), and I lost a few hours of my life.

There are so many great books about history and science out there. Don’t waste your time with this one.

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