Book Discussion Questions: The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

Title:The Girls of Atomic City
Author: Denise Kiernan
Page Count: 309 pages
Genre: World War II Nonfiction, History
Tone: Informative, Atmospheric

The story of several women who worked in various positions at the Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II to secretly make fuel for the atomic bomb.

SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2017 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. Chapter one opens with women riding on a “train to nowhere”. What were some of the things made these women open to doing this? How hard was it on people to leave? Was it harder for some than others? What about those who had families?

2. How did secrecy affect the community at Oak Ridge?

3. How did privacy affect the community at Oak Ridge? How did the residents feel about the fact that anyone could be watching them or listening to them at any time? Was this different than the broader United States at that time?

4. How did the earlier residents of this area feel about their land being taken from them to use for this project (“the taking.”) How did this follow some of the other “land taking” they’d experienced, like the Great Smoky National Park and the Norris Dam? Did patriotism and the war effort affect this? If so, in what ways?

5. How were African Americans treated differently than the white Americans in Oak Ridge? How do you feel about this? (Hutment: 16’x16’ plywood box with a door and a shutter, heated by a potbellied stove, housing 4 women, for $6.50/person/month with no spouses. Whites had dorms for 2 people at $10/person/month. Also trailers, houses, etc where couples and families could live.) What other ways were African Americans discriminated against? Did they sacrifice more?

6. This was an untold story of WWII that the author has brought to light. The part women have played in history has often been overlooked. Why are these important to tell even years later? Have you read other books or seen movies that have told their stories? (Hidden Figures) Why do you think the book is called “The Girls of Atomic City” not women?

7. Before reading this book had you heard of some of the notable female scientists who worked with atomic physics? Have their contributions been given the same weight that males in that discipline have?

8. Lise Meitner played a large part in discovering atomic fission, but when she realized the application of this discovery she decided not to join the Manhattan Project? How do you feel about that?

9. Read these quotes from Albert Einstein and discuss how you feel about them?

He wrote to physicist Niels Bohr in December 1944, “when the war is over, then there will be in all countries a pursuit of secret war preparations with technological means which will lead inevitably to preventative wars and to destruction even more terrible than the present destruction of life.”
Einstein withheld public comment on the atomic bombing of Japan until a year afterward. A short article on the front page of the New York Times contained his view: “Prof. Albert Einstein… said that he was sure that President Roosevelt would have forbidden the atomic bombing of Hiroshima had he been alive and that it was probably carried out to end the Pacific war before Russia could participate.” (“Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb”, New York Times, 8/19/46, pg. 1). Einstein later wrote, “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.”
In November 1954, five months before his death, Einstein summarized his feelings about his role in the creation of the atomic bomb: “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.” (

10. Do you think it was acceptable to hire people to work on this project without them knowing what it was that they were helping to make? Who do you think risked exposure to radiation? Any people stand out? (Those who carried the canisters to Los Alamos. Ebb Cade’s experimentation.) How did the statement, everything’s going in, nothings coming out play into this?

11. Talk about the “ordinary” people who worked on the bomb. Who stood out to you and why? What were their jobs? Who did you empathize with? Who were the “extraordinary” people involved in the project? What were their jobs? Did you feel you got to know them?

12. Talk about the physical characteristics of Oak Ridge? Why was it selected for Site X? How did the environmental conditions affect the residents of the town?

13. How did people try to bring a sense of normalcy to the structured and secretive life at Oak Ridge? Why do you think some were successful in adapting to Oak Ridge while others were not?

14. Was Kiernan successful in transporting you to the world of World War II? Why or why not? What things gave you that sense of time or the era? How did you feel about the way in which the book moved from the stories of the “ordinary people” to the stories about the scientists, generals and politicians involved in the highest level of the project?

15. How much did you know about The Manhattan Project before reading this book? Did you learn anything interesting about it you didn’t know before. (One example for me is just this past summer I saw the headquarters of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, and I knew it was a private, all-male club, but I didn’t know it was involved with the Manhattan Project.)

16. How did WWI and WWII differ from previous wars and subsequent wars the US has been involved in? Are wars unifying or divisive for a country?

17. What did most Americans at that time feel about the war and the use of the atomic bombs? Has our thinking about this changed with time? Why or why not? What have been the ramifications of the atomic bomb and atomic energy, both positive and negative? Let’s talk about how the bombs were used. How were the targets chosen? What were the outcomes? How did the US try to lessen casualties? Hiroshima – August 6, 140,000 killed. Three days later Nagasaki – 40,000 killed. Five days later Japan surrendered.

18. There was a real sense that Americans trusted their government and military leaders and would follow them in this period of time. How is our world different today? Is something this huge, involving so many people, over so long a period of time, with such secrecy possible today? Is that a negative or a positive?

19. How many of you liked this book? How many disliked it? Reasons for or against? Would you have liked this better as a movie?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!


The Girls of Atomic City website
PBS feature “Women on a Top- Secret Mission in ‘Atomic City'”
Simon and Schuster Discussion Questions
The Manhattan Project: An Interactive History from the U.S. Department of Energy


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