The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

black and white picture of a woman painting a clock face with luminous paint, the numbers and the woman have been colourised. The book title is in luminescent green.Why I read it:  One of my friends read the book, tweeted about it and sparked my interest.

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Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives – The Radium Girls is an intimate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.

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