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‘Secret City’ by Julia Watts

‘Secret City’ by Julia Watts

Author: Julie Harthill Clayton

October 29, 2013

In the vast sea of YA novels, there used to be a dearth of stories for the LGBTQ community. Slowly but surely, though, new young authors are penning fiction that reflects a more authentic, diverse world. Julia Watts’ Secret City is an important addition to the genre.

In this compelling historical novel, 16-year-old Ruby Pickett doesn’t quite understand why her family has moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II. She knows vaguely that her Daddy will be participating in the war effort. His particular role, though, and the role of the town’s many scientists, is secret…as is the city itself.

Ruby is a delightful heroine—smart, thoughtful and curious. She reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout—courageous and plucky. Ruby is also fiercely independent. When she realizes her family can no longer afford the luxuries of the pre-Oak Ridge days, she goes against her father’s wishes and gets a job working for a young mother, Iris, and her scientist husband, Warren. Taking care of their baby daughter gives Ruby the affection and love she craves. Ruby in turn provides intellectual stimulation for Iris, and Iris makes Ruby feel needed.

 “I didn’t even think before I said, “I like the way you are.”

Iris smiled. “I like the way you are, too.”

She leaned over and gave me a quick, light kiss on the cheek. Nobody besides family members had ever done that to me before, and it made me feel all funny and fluttery. I blurted out goodnight, then ran inside, grabbed my diary, and tried to use my pencil to catch all the words that came tumbling out of me.”

Soon their friendship grows more intimate and becomes a dangerous secret of its own.

Secret City is a tender, compelling story set during World War II, a time when the price for revealing Secrets – i.e. the nature of the work going on in the Secret City, or a romantic relationship between a young woman and a teenage girl – is often very high. The novel explores themes such as war, forbidden love, and coming-of-age in a way that resonates; readers of all ages will catch glimpses of themselves in Watts’ setting and in her beautifully-drawn characters.

The Oak Ridge, Tennessee in Watts’ novel is based on the real-life government built city of Oak Ridge, also known as “Secret City” or “Atomic City.” For readers interested in learning more about the historical “Secret City,” Watts lists resources for further reading at the end of the novel.

Julia Watts has written many adult, young-adult and middle grade novels. She won a Lambda Literary Award for Finding H.F., a coming-of-age story of a friendship between a young lesbian and young gay man. She graduated from Spalding University’s M.F.A. program and now teaches both at South College and the Murray State University’s low residency M.F.A.



Secret City
By Julia Watts
Bella Books
Paperback, 9781594933905, 266 pp.
July 2013

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