UnknownBy David Steinberg

Depending on how much you want to know, three recently published nonfiction books give readers background on the Manhattan Project. They complement TaraShea Nesbit’s new novel “The Wives of Los Alamos.”

One  book is “The Girls of Atomic City – The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by  Denise Kiernan. (Touchstone). The “Atomic City” of the title isn’t Los Alamos; it’s Oak Ridge, Tenn. The project’s Site X in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was as secret as Site Y in Los Alamos and Site W in Washington state.

Kiernan’s book for the first time tells the true stories of a handful of young women, representating the thousands recruited to work there. In keeping with the project’s blanket of secrecy, these women weren’t told in advance what they would be doing nor what their destination was. They were hired for a variety of roles. For example, Jane Greer from Paris, Tenn., was hired as a statistician-mathematician. Virginia Spivey of Louisburg, N.C., came on board as a chemist. Rosemary Maiers of Holy Cross, Iowa worked as a nurse. Celia Szapka of Shenandoah, Pa., was a secretary.

These women are the lens through which Kiernan also probes the workings of the Manhattan Project at Site X.

A new biography centers on the motivations and personality of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was the civilian head, or director, based at Site Y. It is titled “Robert Oppenheimer – A Life Inside the Center” by Ray Monk (Doubleday).  The trade publication Booklist declares that “In this deeply humanizing biography, Monk invites readers to contemplate the unexpected evil – and good – in the man known as ‘the father of the A-bomb. …Perceptive and detailed, this portrait illuminates a potent but complex mind.” The book opens with Oppenheimer’s friend Isador Rabi remarking that Oppenheimer was “put together of many bright shining splinters” who never developed an integrated personality. Rabi argued that Oppenheimer’s personality was so splintered basically because he denied his Jewishness.

For a very brief factual overview of the Los Alamos site – contained within the sweep of centuries – check out “New Mexico – A History” by Joseph P. Sanchez, Robert L. Spude and Art Gomez (University of Oklahoma Press). President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration authorized the project under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The project had three geographically separated components constituting the Manhattan Engineering District. Site W, in Hanford, Wash., was assigned to produce enriched, weapons-grade uranium; Site X in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was to use plutonium to achieve the same objective as Site W; and Site Y would design and test a nuclear device with those two radioactive elements. Site Y was built on Pajarito Plateau after the government took ownership of the private property on which the Los Alamos Ranch School had been located.

Two other books published in the last few years are of related interest.

One is “Bomb – The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” by Steve Sheinkin. The “bomb” of the title is the atomic bomb and of the Soviet Union’s spies to steal the plans for it. Released in 2012, it  was a National Book Award finalist and won an American Library Association award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction. The other book is “At Home on the Slopes of Mountains – The Story of Peggy Pond Church” by Sharon Snyder. Church was a well-known New Mexico poet who also was a memoirist (“The House at Otowi Bridge”) and author of books for children. She had lived on the Los Alamos Ranch School.