Radium: the wonder element. It was used to battle tumors, which meant that it had health-giving elements. It was a cure-all, treating cancer, gout, constipation…it even was said to restore vitality. This “liquid sunshine” couldn’t possibly be bad…
I went into The Radium Girls with absolutely no knowledge of what I was in for other than the vague sense of dread that the synopsis gave me. I have never studied this particular part of history, though I have studied other parts of the same time period. During World War I, women were toiling away at factories where they painted the luminous dials of watches that were used by troops abroad. The substance glowed in an otherworldly, magical way, lingering on the girls’ skin, their hair, their clothes, a light that marked them as special as they shone faintly in the dark. They were on top of the world doing a job that paid better than most jobs they could get at the time and the substance made them beautiful.
Kate Moore tracks them from 1917 up to 1938 with mentions of World War II; the three parts of the novel follow them as they begin work, as they begin to develop strange illnesses, through their attempts to get justice, and finally the end result. The girls–for some of them began work when they were fourteen–and women take on form through research–letters, newspaper accounts of the time, and legal documents–as well as interviews with descendants. This is extremely well researched. I could feel the depth of the research, even the pieces that likely didn’t make it into the end product. Moore took a vast amount of information about these cases and the history surrounding them and made it readable for the layperson. As someone who hadn’t know about the Radium Girls, it was very informative without losing the heart of this real story. There were so many women that it would be impossible to focus on them all, but by focusing on a small group of them, Moore was able to craft a narrative that was engaging and emotional.
I read an ARC of The Radium Girls, so things will naturally change before its publication date, but I really hope that the final copy of The Radium Girls includes more photographs, scans of newspapers, and the like that relate to the girls and their trials. I think it would have benefited the narrative immensely and made them even more real to me. I think it would be beneficial to have these visuals because the true story contained in The Radium Girls is very difficult to stomach. I was filled with so much horror that I had to back off from reading it for periods of time. If it contained photographs, it would give a short pause to the reader but still keep them very much in the story. It would be a short time to catch your breath before delving back into a story where a woman kept the pieces of her jawbone in a box to present as evidence at a hearing. (In the back of my copy there’s a list of photographs used, so perhaps this is the case.*)
I think that Moore did a good job of presenting all of the information. This novel is about these women and the legacy they’ve left so it was biased in their favor, but it also wasn’t explicitly judgmental toward the companies. Moore let the facts do the talking. That is where the judgement comes from. She told a story and allowed the reader to reach the point of anger and disgust toward the companies on their own. For how could a reader not be disgusted when a company did an autopsy on a recently deceased girl and secret away the bones that would tell of the disease caused by the radium? How could a reader not be disgusted when a company member proclaimed that “nothing was wrong”* to a woman who had lost an arm due to the radium in her former work and another who could hardly walk because her bones were riddled with holes?
Not only does The Radium Girls explore who these women were and the legacy they’ve left, but it also explores how power and money make people into horrible human beings without a shred of decency. I cannot say that I felt that any who worked in the company deserved any pity. They walked on the backs of their workers and attempted to deny all. Something that was particularly tragic was that the women were dying and being blamed for their deaths. One woman was said to have syphilis because they didn’t yet know what it was. For the company, that became a sort of justification–it wasn’t their fault. Although they knew that the radium was dangerous or at least could potentially be dangerous, they still denied it, instead disparaging the dead in order to protect their interests. It was disgusting. I was angry for a lot of The Radium Girls because of this. It was horrible to read about the things that the companies and the people protecting them did in order to avoid recognizing that they were in the wrong. There was proof that showed radium was to blame, yet they still ignored it and swept it under the rug, instead blaming the dead: “They were ‘unfit'” or “not in full health when they began to work.”* It was horrible and tragic to read, especially when women were still lip-painting at the factories as other women were fighting for justice.
And these women kept fighting. I think that Moore did them a great justice. By giving readers an account of their stories that did not pull any punches–between the descriptions of their bodies falling apart and betraying them and how poorly they were treated by the companies and their communities–Moore shows readers truly how bad it was for them. And still they fought on. As much as it was tragic and difficult to read at times, it was also really inspiring to read about women who did not stop in their fight for justice and recognition. They changed how companies treat people who are working with dangerous substances.
In terms of writing style, there was a very clear narrative. By taking us through the decades that the girls suffered and fought, Moore created a story that was easy to follow. However, there was a part of the book that I felt lagged because it was a lot of information and names that were sometimes difficult to follow. It was necessary, but it was a lot of information about how they were fighting and being thwarted at every turn. It was hard to read and disheartening. It picked up again when the court hearings began and once I hit that point I couldn’t stop reading. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this book despite it having this slow part.
As someone who knew nothing about these events in history, I recommend going into The Radium Girls prepared. There are moments that are disturbing to read because it isn’t fiction. It is an intense read.
The Radium Girls is a book that explores how women who had few rights as workers took on companies that want to deny them compensation for their illnesses caused by their work. The decades that these women fought and died changed how people worked with dangerous substances. The Radium Girls explores the bravery of these women in the face of the inevitable. Even though they knew they couldn’t do much for themselves, they still fought to change things for the future and to keep others from the same fate. I thought their stories were incredible and recommend this book for anyone who would like to learn more about this part of history and how women fought to be recognized.
I received a copy of The Radium Girls from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Radium Girls will be published on May 2nd.
*Comments about photographs and quotes are taken from an unfinished ARC copy of The Radium Girls and may change in the final edition.