Originally posted on the Happy Homo Book Club
Ever heard of Catherine Donohue, Grace Fryer or Katherine Schaub? No? And yet these women have likely saved you from enduring the same bone-splintering fate from radium poisoning.
Kate Moore’s “Radium Girls” gives us a very personal and up-front account of the labouring women of the early 20th century whose bodies literally crumbled in front of their loved ones, while the denial of radium poisoning by greedy businessmen continued to cost more women’s lives.
Definitely a must-read for everyone but of particular interest to anyone interested in Feminist and Marxist histories.
Most of us have come across the name radium at one point or another, whether it be in a school science lesson or through one of the many pop culture references to it. Before reading this book the only things I knew about radium were from the Fallout game franchise, in which you live in a world destroyed by nuclear fallout and try to survive attacks from “horribly irradiated” creatures such as feral ghouls. However, like many others, I knew almost nothing of the real world ‘Radium Fever’ that swept across the world during the early 20th century; a time which saw radium used in almost all everyday items such as a chocolate, water, toothpaste, cosmetics, and in clocks and watches.
Enter Kate Moore‘s “Radium Girls”, a richly woven historical account of America’s ‘shining women’ who worked in the dial-painting factories during the radium boom the early 20th century. Thought of as the luckiest girls on earth for getting to work with the ‘health miracle‘, hundreds of girls sat down to work every day at the factories where they diligently painted clock and watch faces in the very way in which they were shown to. Lip, Dip, Paint. Who would have thought that such a short and simple phrase could cast such a chill down one’s spine?
As a self-proclaimed “story-teller and non-academic”, Moore takes us on an illuminating historical journey into the horrifying consequences of such a simple act of putting a paintbrush to one’s lips and the diabolical cover-ups of their bone-cracking suffering by the very radium corporations that they ended up giving their lives to. As a student of History, I have read many dry historical accounts and have found that these often focus more on historical events than the lives of the very people who were involved in the making of those events. Frustrated with such an approach to a sensitive, emotive and hard-hitting injustice, Moore used her strengths as a storyteller to really focus on the experiences of the girl’s themselves. Following a number of women from the United States Radium Corporation and Radium Dial Corporation factories, we don’t just get to know these women but come to develop a surprising closeness with them as we watch them, literally, begin to disintegrate before the very eyes of their loved ones.
Moore’s powerful descriptions of these women, including what they looked like, what they wore, how they behaved, their romances, aspirations and families, helps to ground the reality of what happened to them, which is something entirely missing from abstract historical accounts. We don’t just hear about the terrifying science behind radium, the economic boom and the Great Depression of the 20’s, the abstract suffering and slow decay of radium poisoning, but we see it, we feel it. I never thought that I would see a shining woman, lit up like a beautiful firefly in the night sky as she danced down the street in her elegant new dress and her glamorous soft curled bob on her way to meet her hunky new romance. I also never thought that I would see the horror of women pulling chunks of their jawbone out of her own mouth, as blackened lumps begin to appear and their bodies become twisted into excruciating angles as they slowly endure the radium eating through their bones.
Whilst it can at times be hard to sit through, there were definitely a few times I felt sick or cried as these young women that I had come to know began to crumble away, the Radium Girls is a must read. I have always felt so passionately about history which uncovers the lives of people whom others wish to see buried in the decay of the past, and this is exactly what the Radium Girls is about. Helping to bring these women further justice after the horrors that they were put through by greedy businessmen and amplifying a legacy which is not told often enough. Your safety in the workplace from occupational poisons and the fact that we haven’t all died a similarly painful death from radium in nuclear fallout is largely thanks to these women. Yet, I can bet that you have never heard the names of Katherine Schaub, Grace Fryer or Catherine Donohue, to name but a few.
For the most part, I only have incredibly good words to say about Moore’s critically important book but, as with any book, there were a few niggly bits that meant that I gave this 4 1/2 stars rather than 5. I found the jumping between the two different factories in Ottawa and New Jersey quite confusing, especially given how many different people we hear about during such a short space of time. However, I did find that this was slightly offset by Moore primarily focusing on particular girls throughout the book. Another tiny niggle I had was that although I majoritively enjoyed the story-telling aspect of Moore’s work, there are times when her writing can become a little bit too purple prose which, at times, I found a little bit distracting. And lastly, I did find Radium Girls a little bit of a slow read. It took me almost exactly a month to read it, and I struggled a little bit with the length of the first section of the book which focused on the “setting up” of the story. Yet, once again this didn’t bother me too much, particularly as I felt that the slowness of the book ended up cleverly lending itself as a mimicry of the women’s very long fight for justice and I would rather Moore used more words to do these women’s lives justice than rush through.
Lastly, I would just like to say a huge thank you to Sourcebook for allowing me to read Radium Girls through Netgalley and, of course, to Kate Moore for capturing the Radium Girls in such a powerful narrative. As I read my copy through Netgalley I sadly didn’t get to appreciate the wonderful photographs included in the hard-copy of the book, so can’t wait to get my own copy of this!