Nutshell:In the same vein as Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Radium Girls digs into a forgotten, swept-under piece of history and tells the stories of the women who fought for their rights – and their lives – as the corporations that they worked for continued to say that radium was safe. A powerful, heartbreaking read.
Story: In the early 20th Century, the United States hired women to paint watch dials. Paint them with radium. Now we know that stuff is incredibly dangerous and could kill you…and that’s thanks in large part to the women who worked day and night, painting watches. And licking the radium-covered brushes so the brush point would be nice and sharp.
“It was a technique called lip-pointing, inherited from the first girls who had worked in the industry, who came from china-painting factories. Unbeknownst to the girls, it wasn’t the way things were done in Europe…”
“The girls were already doing overtime to keep up with demand, working seven days a week; now, the studio started operating night and day. The dial-painters glowed even brighter from the radium against the dark windows: a workshop of shining spirits…”
“These gleamings seemed suspended in the darkness [and] stirred us with ever-new emotion and enchantment” – Marie Curie
Add-ons: Mid-book photo insert of several Radium Girls, from personal archives and newspaper pieces. Also, a reading group guide, extensive endnotes and bibliography.
Thoughts: All I’ve ever known about the “Radium Girls” was a snippet of history – how these women painted radium on watches, and used their lips and tongues to “sharpen” their brush points. And how doing that led to horrible illnesses, agony and death. The Radium Girls digs deeply into the lives and day-to-day of these women, along with their families. It’s an incredible look at these stories, as the plague of radium poisoning swept from New Jersey to Ottawa, Illinois, slowly affecting the workers.
The introduction made me feel as though I was a trespasser, someone who didn’t know enough about the “Girls” to read on. The author knows her subject inside and out, and that comes across immediately. But I felt lost; the names and places rung no bells… But as the book begins, Moore put all my fears to rest thanks to her wonderful eye to detail, and copious research.
You feel for these Girls. Root for them, ache for them, celebrate their triumphs and good times, feel their pain and hope. Understand their loneliness as one by one they’re hospitalized. Cheer as these Girls, many of whom were literally on their deathbed, struggled to hold these companies accountable. And their deaths… OH GOD. It’s devastating. Their stories are absolutely heartbreaking, and the backlash from the companies (as well as neighborhoods who didn’t want to lose lucrative jobs during the Depression) infuriating. But thanks to Moore’s captivating storytelling, I couldn’t stop reading.
Moore tells the stories of these girls, from fresh-faced teens and twenty-somethings to desperate, debilitated, and many cases dying, women with grace, power, and heart. I could tell that Moore was just as infuriated, as heartbroken as I was. It was if I was going through the story with her, or she with me. Moore also drops more well-known historical tidbits into her narrative, including names like Clarence Darrow (who was too old to take on the case), The Great Depression (which had women holding onto these well-paying jobs), and Prohibition/The Roaring 20s (as the Girls made money, they lived lives of bobbed hair, high fashion, and dancing). History is used to flesh out the story, and doesn’t eclipse the Girls and what they were going through.
Moore also sheds light on families, friends, and loved ones that were affected. These women were in their prime, and while many still lived at home, more still were getting married and starting families. My favorite part? When a housekeeper, after her mistress who’d been shunned by the town had died of radium poisoning, summed up one town’s post-death hypocrisy beautifully:
“Everyone has been very kind,” she said, perhaps a little tightly. Some of that kindness would have gone further when Catherine was still alive. [Best. Housekeeper. Ever.]
Which brings me to one point I feel I should mention; the medical detail here is staggering. Not that it’s incomprehensible – far from it. But that it’s horrifying. As radium poisoning burned through bodies, the disease caused rotten teeth, bones that looked moth-eaten, bone tumors that broke through skin, while the radium “slowly ate its way through her jugular vein”, and saddled the Girls with “paper thin skin that literally would split open if simply brushed by a fingernail.” Put on your Strong Stomach Pants if you’re squeamish. Personally, I had no trouble, but Moore pulls no punches here, in describing the Girls as they declined, or the businesses, medical professionals, and lawyers that tried to cover things up.
And that’s the most blood-stirring part of all this. As Moore brings these Girls into sharp focus, the manipulation, behind-closed-doors dealings, and general hideous behavior from the establishment is shocking. Even when held up to the standards of the day (wobbly labor laws, insufficient knowledge of radium by the general public, the lack of the 24-hour-news-cycle/social media to get the word out), reading about how the corporations that employed these Girls colluded with government and medical professionals? Conflicting information on the safety/dangers of radium, indifferent company management, and research funded by obviously biased radium companies… It was a punch in my emotional gut. And in The Radium Girls, those punches keep coming, as women slowly (or quickly, depending on the woman) succumbed to radium poisoning.
Drop whatever you’re reading and pick this up. All apologies to authors everywhere, but The Radium Girls is powerful, stirring, and the kind of story you’ll be telling your friends about, and saying “I read that before the miniseries”. Because if there’s any love and justice in this world, there will be a miniseries telling these stories. (Please don’t shortchange this story with a short, gloss-over movie treatment, like they did The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.)
Read or Reshelve: A must-read. Not just for history fans – readers of legal thrillers (fiction and non) will find this true story engrossing. Ditto readers of cultural anthropology, and women’s/worker’s rights.
Publication 411: Sourcebooks, May 2nd 2017