What it’s about: (from Goodreads) Ordinary women in 1920s America.
All they wanted was the chance to shine.
Be careful what you wish for.
‘The first thing we asked was, “Does this stuff hurt you?” And they said, “No.” The company said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.’
1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls.
As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering – in the face of death – these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.
Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives – The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): Part of me wants to say “Oh, this book was SO good!” but that seems insensitive. It’s non-fiction and the heartbreaking truth of what happened to “the Radium Girls” was anything but good. From a narrative perspective however, the book is gripping. It’s part medical mystery (as the doctors look for answers to the seemingly disparate and frankly weird symptoms being experienced and invent techniques to test for the presence of radium), it’s part legal drama (as the girls and/or their next of kin fight for justice throughout various legal actions), part human interest story as the girls are brought to life by the sensitive and careful treatment they receive from the author.
“The Radium Girls” in the period of (and either side of) the 1920s worked in one of three factories or “studios” painting the luminescent paint onto clock and watch faces and on the dials and other instruments used during the war (aviation instruments for example). The luminescence was a result of radium. Now we know that radium is toxic and deadly but back then, it was lauded as a wonder drug, a “healthful” thing which would put “roses in [your] cheeks”. It was a new craze and it was, seemingly, everywhere. In the late 1910s, women were put to work because all the men were off at war. And painting the dials was good money for a young girl. Indeed it was the highest paying factory job going. The girls literally shone when they went out at night, the radium clinging to their clothes and hair. They were envied and admired.
And then they started to get sick.
The illness was horrendous. The descriptions are graphic and difficult to hear but they are not torture-porn. There is a sensitivity and a respect paid to the victims at all times. I didn’t do a complete count but there were perhaps a dozen girls portrayed in depth in this book, with many others more-than-mentioned as well. Each description includes information about her, what she enjoyed, what she liked to wear or how she wore her hair, her sense of humour, who she loved, how she became ill. All of the girls were more than their disease. And because they were so real in my ears, I cried when they suffered and died.
There are also snippets of love stories throughout the book. As a romance reader I guess it’s not surprising that they shone out to me. These women were so very ill and for the most part, when they became ill, no-one knew what was actually wrong with them. It’s no surprise that some doctors thought some of the illnesses were “hysterical”. There’s a story of a fiance who took his girl around in a wagon he pulled by hand so she could get out and have some fun. She was too weak and unwell to walk herself. She died before they were married. He eventually married someone else and went on to have a family with his wife but around the anniversary of his first fiancee’s birth and death every year, he went quiet, remembering the love he lost. There’s the story of the girl who would not accept financial help from her fiance so, even though she was terribly unwell he married her so as to persuade her to accept his financial aid. He loved her. It wasn’t what he considered a sacrifice. And then he basically bankrupted himself to pay for her medical care because that’s what you do when you love someone. There’s the story of the quiet man, Tom Donahue, who married Katherine Wolf from his local church. How he carried her about in his arms when she became too weak to walk. How he brought her bed down from upstairs and put it in the front room when she could no longer make it to the second floor. He slept on a couch at the foot of her bed. After she died, he never remarried but he did eventually learn to laugh again.
There was also a story about a guy who wasn’t quite the hero the other husbands were. He hit his wife sometimes. And one time he tried to kill her by turning the gas on in the house. He did some good things too – people aren’t only one thing after all – but his wife deserved so much better.
One of the love stories had a (in context) happy ending when the woman eventually went on to live into her 90s and her and her husband had a long and (mostly) happy life together. She had pain and illness throughout her life from the radium, she lost children and had to have a hysterectomy because of it, but she counted herself as one of the very lucky ones.
There were love stories from the parents of the girls – some of the girls were as young as 14 when they started work at the radium studios – or of the girls themselves and how they worried for their children (when they were able to have them – many were plagued by multiple miscarriages and stillbirths) and their husbands after they were gone. It was not possible to be a detached listener because the women came to life on the page.
The scientific information about how the radium affected the girls and what was happening to their bodies, the way the radium was used and how certain techniques were developed was all very fascinating and presented in easily understandable language – but always directly connected to the people involved. As the girls tried to find justice, they found some champions in the form of various doctors, advocates and lawyers along the way, but equally there were plenty of villains too. The corporations who knew radium was dangerous and didn’t warn the girls. The doctors who were complicit in hiding the evidence. The doctors and executives who flat-out lied about what was happening. The companies who fought on hoping the girls would just die already so that they wouldn’t have to pay any money. The law which had not kept up with industry and did not do enough to protect the workforce. I spent much of the book wanting to rage at the injustice of it all. I spent an equal amount admiring the courage and fortitude of the women who banded together to provide support to each other.
The Radium Girls is a feminist story as well and one of the villains is the patriarchy which valued women at far less than men. And that made me angry as well. It’s not overt in the story. It’s subtext for the most part but one can’t help but notice it. One of the early champions of the girls from Orange, New Jersey was a woman who worked at the Consumer’s League – a sort of proto-union for women and not a better business bureau type organisation as the name might suggest. She was a fierce and tenacious advocate for the women.
What else? The narrator, who is also the author of the book, clearly felt deeply for the girls too; it was evident in her voice. It’s unusual in an author-turned-narrator to have such a professional performance, with clear diction, little by way of audible breath sounds and excellent pacing and tone but Kate Moore delivered. In the acknowledgements at the end (yes I listened to those too) I gained some insight into why; Ms. Moore first learned of the Radium Girls when she directed a play about them. It seems she has some theatre/acting experience and it showed in the narration. As it’s a non-fiction book, I didn’t expect character voices really, but there was some effort made and that added to the colour of the book without ever being too much. What I’m looking for in the narration of a romance book is vastly different to what I’m after in a non-fiction audio. This performance was just right.
The legacy of the Radium Girls lives on today in the form of OSHA in the USA and the various industrial health and safety laws. Also in the ban on atomic testing and our understanding of what is a safe level of radioactivity for a human (answer: the natural radioactivity of a human should not be increased). The book was not easy to listen to but it was compelling and I’m very glad to have listened to it.