Thomas Dyja’s comprehensive history, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream (Penguin, $18), demonstrates that as went the Windy City, so went the nation. Every fascinating chapter uses anecdotes, data, and colorful characters to illustrate Chicago’s leading role in America’s progress from circa 1938 to 1960. It was the time when Mies van der Rohe’s revolutionary and rigorous designs shaped the Illinois Institute of Technology while Lazlo Miholy’s preached free-spirited inspiration at the Institute of Design. Studs Terkel walked the streets collecting amazing stories and songs for his broadcasts. Gwendolyn Brooks and Nelson Algren chronicled the struggles of the nation’s marginalized while Mike Nichols and Elaine May laid the groundwork for five decades of comic brilliance. Mahalia Jackson sang transcendent Gospel and Muddy Waters’s electric blues reminded listeners that hell ain’t so far below. But this is just a sample—Dyja’s rich cultural tapestry has much, much more.
Depression-era New York is a treasure trove of wonderful narratives, and City of Ambition (W.W. Norton, $17.95) recounts a story that, considering our current political discourse, almost reads like fiction. Mason B. Williams shows us how two men of different temperaments and on opposite sides of the political spectrum united to build the infrastructure that changed the city of New York and directly influenced the nation as a whole. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia crossed party lines to embrace President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal; these leaders fought each other’s opponents, listened to one another’s ideas, and worked tirelessly to push through the fear that dominated America during the Great Depression and construct a new world grounded in downright gumption.
Established in 1942 and by 1945 home to 75,000 people, the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW) in Tennessee was not on maps, and its mission was so highly classified that its nature was unknown even to its ever-expanding workforce. Today, the area once coded as “Site X” is known as Oak Ridge, and what happened there in the 1940s was part of the Manhattan Project. With labor generally—and men especially— in short supply on the home front, the Project at CEW strenuously recruited women, especially young, poor, and poorly education women who would do what they were told and not ask questions. In The Girls of Atomic City (Touchstone, $16), Denise Kiernan’s social history of this unusual community, the nurses and statisticians, chemists and technicians, tell their stories at last. Kiernan interviewed each of her subjects at length, and her lively, often slangy narrative preserves their voices; this is history as it was lived, full of the normal experiences of love and ambition, but also rife with exploitation, intimidation, and unacknowledged experiments with radiation.