OXFORD, Miss. – A book recounting the experiences of young women lured to work on a secret project during World War II has been chosen as the 2014 Common Reading Experience at the University of Mississippi.
“The Girls of Atomic City,” written by Denise Kiernan, was chosen by a majority vote of the Common Reading Experience committee. Each member of the incoming freshman class for fall 2014 will receive a copy of the book to read during the summer, and Kiernan is to speak to them Aug. 26 during fall convocation.
“The incoming freshman class at the university who will be reading ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ are the same age as many of the individuals who worked on the Manhattan Project,” Kiernan said. “They, too, were leaving home, many of them for the first time. They, too, were thrust into new, unfamiliar surroundings and were forging friendships and bonds that would last a lifetime.
“However, for the class of 2018, this new adventure is about investigation and exploration, about gaining knowledge and indulging curiosity. These kinds of endeavors were not encouraged for the vast majority of the residents of Oak Ridge and the other secret cities of the Manhattan Project. This is just one example of how I hope my book will spark productive conversation about both the similarities and differences between the young adults of today and their counterparts from the early 1940s.”
Based on the true stories from women who lived it, “The Girls of Atomic City” tells the story of young women who, at the height of WWII, went to work in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The town, which was home to 75,000 residents and consumed more electricity than New York City, did not exist before the war. Thousands of civilians – many of them young women from small towns across the South – were recruited to this secret city, lured by good wages and the promise of war-ending work. They labored and lived without knowing the truth about the tasks they performed each day, until the end of the war.
“‘The Girls of Atomic City’ tells a compelling story of how young women from all parts of the nation were catapulted into positions of sacrifice and responsibility, living and working together under difficult conditions for what they could only assume was in the best interests of the war effort,” said Robert Cummings, director of the UM Center for Writing and Rhetoric.
“Even if they did not understand how their individual roles related to the overall goal, they learned to navigate personal differences, respect different opinions and listen to other perspectives, forcing them to grow and change. Of course, the Oak Ridge work had tremendous life-and-death consequences with moral and ethical questions that the book explores. In addition to the many ethical questions presented, readers are also invited to reflect on the roles of women in society who were asked to shoulder burdens no men had faced.”
The book was the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards Runner-Up for Best History and Biography and is a New York Times best-seller.
The committee charged with reviewing nominations pored through the long list of titles submitted by members of the Ole Miss community. Ultimately, the list was narrowed to five, which the committee members read during winter break. After an in-depth discussion and a final vote, “The Girls of Atomic City” received the nomination.
“I am humbled and honored that ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ has been chosen for UM’s 2014 Common Reading Experience,” Kiernan added. “Mississippi as a whole and Oxford in particular have an incredibly rich literary history, and I’m delighted to have any opportunity to be associated with both that legacy and with Ole Miss. I am very much looking forward to sharing my book with the students and community at the university’s fall convocation.”
The entire Ole Miss family is encouraged to participate in the common reading experience. In addition to fall convocation, other events will be planned to explore the book’s themes and bring the community and students together.
“As the Common Reading Experience progresses, we will advertise several events which highlight the connections between the science and technological change that powered the development of the atomic bomb and the role of the university generally in conducting research to produce original knowledge,” added Cummings, who, along with Leslie Banahan, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, also serves as co-chair of the Common Reading Experience committee. “We hope that these public events will also allow readers to reflect on the significance of the book for them.”