One of the wonderful developments which has been made possible by the spread of the “information age” is our access to the hidden histories of women, particularly in the 20th century when their work was recorded and noted, but not publicized. With our ever increasing access to the cinematic and TV reels, the notes and minutes of a dramatic century we are coming to recognize the contribution of so many women to the huge endeavours that have changed the world: Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first algorithm intended to be executed by a computer, Grace Hopper was the first person to design a compiler for a programming language, Hedy Lamarr who developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which was later incorporated into Bluetooth technology and used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi, Katherine Johnson, the mathematician we met and loved in “Hidden Figures” who took them to the moon and brought them home again.
Lynn Ames latest novel is exactly on point with a fictional historical romance based on the lives of the women who extracted the uranium used for the first atomic bombs. Unrecognized, either for praise or blame, women worked the dials, extracting the uranium the US needed to win the arms race and ultimately to force Japan to its knees. The majority of these women had no idea what they were doing, just did their best to support the war effort. But one woman did know, did understand the enormity of what they were doing, even if she couldn’t have imagined the destruction and human cost of the bombs that were dropped.
In Ames’ first book in the series “Chain Reactions” we meet the elderly Nora Lindstrom and learn of her immense contribution to the US war effort, not least her silence, and her subsequent grief and guilt for the impact of those dropped bombs. In Secrets Well Kept we jump back to 1943, to the reality of being the only woman with top level clearance at Oak Ridge, the site built for uranium extraction in Tennessee, part of the wider Manhattan Project. Alongside the sole woman physicist we meet the girls given training to turn the dials, balance the voodoo science that extracts the uranium.. “girls” who proved more competent at the task than the male PhD’s who always wanted to know why.
But like all Lynn Ames’ excellent stories there is a romance, illicit in many senses; 2 women goes without saying, but compounded by boss/worker and the explicit need for secrecy in terms of sexuality, relationship and war effort, doubled for Nora who knows what they are doing and the likely impact of their work. The romance is sweet and poignant, set in monumental times, which, literally, changed the world.
The history is compelling, given what we now know of the devastation caused to so many millions, and while we can recognize the Allies desperation to end the war with Japan, we will always question the annihilation of a whole city of souls, and then another, to make the point. The emotional impact of that later understanding on the people who made those bombs cannot be imagined, and the girls who worked the dials were purposefully kept in the dark, adding to the shock of discovering what they had been doing.
Overall an impactful book, made human, as always, by Lynn Ames’ excellent writing, her attention to detail and her emotive and sympathetic characters. But for me personally the real impact is that of a bunch of high school graduate level women, with no scientific training, being the instruments – and they were literally the tools – of the war machine that was determined to win the nuclear race and use that victory to end the war.
(publisher review copy received)